Crusaders' history making exploits in IRN-BRU Cup end with defeat to Inverness
Crusaders' history making exploits in the IRN-BRU Cup came to an end at Tulloch Caledonian Stadium as they suffered a 3-2 defeat to Inverness.
The Scottish Championship side netted as early as the first minute and were 3-0 ahead at half-time but the visitors staged a spirited second half fightback against their full-time opponents with Paul Heatley netting a brace.
Stephen Baxter's men overcame Motherwell's U20 side, Highland League's Cove Rangers and holders Dundee United at Tannadice to become the first Irish League side to make the last four of the tournament but Inverness brought that extraordinary run to an end.
The visitors got off to the worst possible start as George Oakley took advantage of some slack defending to poke in the opener after only 59 seconds.
In the 13th minute the Crues fell 2-0 behind when Joe Chalmers was left unmarked to head home with Oakley providing the dangerous cross.
Goalkeeper Brian Jensen spared his side further punishment when he foiled Oakley in impressive fashion just after the half hour but a minute before half-time and just after Heatley forced Mark Ridgers into a save, Jake Mulraney finished off another slick counter-attack.
Gavin Whyte and Jordan Owens were introduced at the break and the Crues showed more attacking intent in the second half.
Darren Murray forced Ridgers to make a block in the 55th minute and Heatley reduced the deficit two minutes later when he stabbed the ball home from Whyte's cross.
In the 63rd minute Inverness defender Brad McKay was sent off after impeding Heatley, earning him a second booking.
Heatley set up a tense finish when he grabbed his brace in the 79th minute, racing onto Jordan Owens' pass and slotting the ball low beyond Ridgers.
In the 85th minute the Inverness keeper got a firm hand on Murray's effort and Owens just couldn't force in the rebound.
Oakley then struck the base of the post in an entertaining finish and deep into added time Inverness were awarded a penalty when Declan Caddell collided with Liam Polworth in the area.
Caddell was booked twice and sent off for taking his protests too far but there was no further damage done as Iain Vigurs screwed his spot-kick wide.
Stevie Aitken's Dumbarton side will face Inverness in the decider after winning 2-1 at the home of The New Saints in Wales.
The final is scheduled for the weekend of March 24-25.
Belfast Telegraph Digital