DOWN boss James McCartan praised his players after coming back from nine points down to beat Monaghan 1-14 to 1-13 in the Ulster SFC semi-final.
“Monaghan gave us a mountain to climb and we started to climb it,” said the Mourne manager.
“It was a race against time and at one stage I thought it was going to be too much for us, but we kept plugging away.
“Decisions did not go our way but we didn’t panic, and even after Freeman bagged the goal we didn’t lose heart.”
Down will play the winner of next week’s game between Donegal and Tyrone in the provincial decider.
It was a stunning comeback from the Mourne men, who trailed 0-11 to 1-2 at half-time.
McCartan added: “Our first-half performance left a lot to be desired - it was hugely disappointing and nearly gave us too much to do.
“We have to give ourselves credit although I have to also give credit to Monaghan, who had a chance at the end but it didn’t go over and it could have been a draw.”
Dynamic Down’s stunning win at the Athletic Grounds means they have qualified for their first Ulster final since 2003.
James McCartan’s men looked down and out when they trailed a dominant Farney side by nine points at one stage, but they turned a terrific contest in their favour with an exceptional display of heart, guts and determination.
Aidan Carr gave them a lifeline with a goal from a penalty late in the first half, and it was wing back Darren O’Hagan who popped up to punch over the winning point deep into stoppage time.
That score, incredibly, gave them the lead for the first time, but it was enough to set up a Clones title showdown with either Tyrone or defending champions Donegal. Owen Lennon and Dick Clerkin established a foothold in midfield, and front men Paul Finlay and Conor McManus laid on an exhibition of finishing as Monaghan took the game confidently to the favourites.
The pair hit a combined total of nine points in the first half alone, and the Mourne defence struggled to contain a fast-moving attacking unit.
Down did craft a goal chance, but Owen Lennon intercepted superbly as Eoin McCartan tried to release Donal O’Hare.
However, it was the Farney men who kept th tempo going, and a superb score from Conor McManus restored their three-point advantage.
When McManus and Finlay steered over frees, they led by 0-6 to 0-1 midway through the first half.
O’Hare pulled back a point from a free, and Down had a goal chance when Rogers burst forward, but he was denied by a brilliant Mark Keogh save.
McManus brought his tally to five with two converted frees, Finlay stroked over his fourth, and Dick Clerkin opened out a nine-point advantage.
Down did pull back a goal in stoppage time, when Aidan Carr slotted home a penalty after Vinnie Coey had fouled Conor Laverty.
It was Monaghan who held a commanding 0-11 to 1-2 lead at the break, but the Mourne men, with Kalum King and Ambrose Rogers lifting their game at midfield, narrowed the gap back to three points within 10 minutes of the restart with scores from
Donal O’Hare and substitute Kevin Duffin. And when a superb take by full back Brendan McArdle launched a flowing move, Conor Laverty applied the finishing touch with a delightful point.
Monaghan struggled to get any attacking movement going, but they did craft a goal chance when McManus released James Turley, but goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh rose to the occasion with a superb save.
Monaghan countered for Tommy Freeman, just onto the field as a substitute, to collect a quickly taken free from McManus, to blast home a 57th minute goal Down refused to panic, and persisted with their measured approach, and after O’Hare had converted two more frees,
Benny Coulter came off the bench to hit a crucial score, to leave two points in it.
Liam Doyle brought it back to one from a free, and when another free from 45m was calmly slotted over by Aidan Carr the sides were level. Another delivery in from Carr fell to O’Hagan in stoppage time and, he calmly punched the ball over the bar for a glorious stoppage-time winner.
Down scorers: A Carr 1-2 (1-0 pen, 0-1f), D O’Hare 0-5 (5f), C Laverty 0-2, K Duffin, L Doyle (f), B Coulter, D O’Hagan, A Rogers (f) 0-1 each.
Monaghan scorers: T Freeman 1-0, C McManus (3f), P Finlay (3f) 0-5 each, D Hughes 0-2 (1f, 1 ’45), D Clerkin 0-1.
Down: B McVeigh, D McCartan, B McArdle, G McCartan, D O’Hagan, K McKernan, C Garvey, A Rogers, K King, D Hughes, M Poland, A Carr, D O’Hare, C Laverty, E McCartan. Subs: K Duffin for D McCartan, L Doyle for Duffin, B Coulter for O’Hare
Monaghan: M Keogh, D Wylie, V Corey, C Walshe, D Hughes, D Mone, K O’Connell, O Lennon, D Clerkin, P Dooney, S Gollogly, J Turley, K Hughes, P Finlay, C McManus.