ANTRIM'S hurlers clocked up their first ever win in the All-Ireland SHC Qualifier series when disposing of 14-man Laois at Casement Park.
This is the Saffrons' second year in the Qualifier system having contested - successfully - the Christy Ring Cup last season. Their previous outings in 2005 had seen heavy losses to Limerick and Galway as well as a two-point loss to yesterday's opponents, and that looked to be the way this match would pan out after the opening exchanges.
Laois led 1-1 to 0-0 with less than two minutes played with John Brophy firing to the net for the visitors, but an unanswered 1-5 from Antrim between the 17th and 34th minutes laid the foundations for a deserved home win.
The sending-off of Shane Dollard after an off-the-ball incident just after the restart could hardly be described as a turning point - Antrim were five points up at the time - but after his dismissal there was only going to be one winner.
The O'Moore men had dominated the opening exchanges with Tommy Fitzgerald - lining out at full forward - causing the Antrim defence major problems. This led to full-back Kieran Kelly being called ashore in the 13th minute for Micky Kettle who kept a much tighter rein on the Portlaoise man.
By that stage, Fitzgerald had already made the game's first goal. After skinning Kelly for pace, his shot was well saved by Ryan McGarry between the Antrim posts but Brophy was on hand to fire home the rebound.
Antrim clawed their way back and levelled for the first time when Paul Shiels slotted over from play on 14 minutes. James Young and JJ McHugh pointed for Laois either side of a Karl Stewart point before the Saffrons coasted into the lead they never looked like losing.
Ciarán Herron levelled the game for the third time at 0-8 to 1-5 with Karl McKeegan grabbing the game's second goal on 21 minutes.
Young stopped the rot for Laois with a brace of frees before the break to leave the half-time score at 1-12 to 1-7 in favour of the home side.
Two minutes into the second-half Laois were reduced to 14 men when Dollard clashed with McManus. Referee Fergus Smith sent the Rathdowney man for an early shower but it took Antrim until the closing stages of the game to really shake off the Laois challenge.
On 69 minutes, the Leinster side were still within five points, due in the main to the free-taking of Young, but McManus, McKeegan, Johnny McIntosh, McGill and Michael Herron all added late points.
The Saffrons now travel to Galway next Saturday with their All-Ireland quarter-final hopes still intact, although a win over the Tribesmen looks a bridge too far for this developing Antrim side.
Laois, meanwhile, will be playing for pride when they face Clare in the final game of the series.
SCORERS - Antrim: K McKeegan 1-3 (2f); P McGill 0-5 (2f); C Herron 0-3; N McManus, M Herron, K Stewart, P Shiels, J McIntosh 0-2 each; McCambridge, K Kelly 0-1 each. Laois: J Young 0-9 (7f); J Brophy 1-1; M Whelan, JJ McHugh, T Fitzgerald 0-1 each.
ANTRIM - R McGarry; A Graffin, K Kelly, Sean Delargy; M McCambridge, J Campbell, Ciaran Herron; K McKeegan, B Herron; P McGill, N McManus, M Herron; K Stewart, C Duffin, P Shiels. Subs: M Kettle for K Kelly, J McIntosh for C Duffin
LAOIS - P Mullaney; John Walsh, C Healy, C Dunne; James Walsh, M Whelan, M McEvoy; J Fitzpatrick, S Dollard; J Brophy, James Young, JJ McHugh; T Fitzgerald, W Hyland, P Russell. Subs: B Fitzgerald for W Hyland, E Jackman for JJ McHugh, M Birmingham for P Russell, B McEvoy for J Fitzpatrick
REF - F Smith (Meath).