BATTLING Town came within one goal of the against-the-odds win which would have taken the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern final to penalties.
Carlisle, 4-0 up from the first leg, will now meet Brentford in the Wembley showpiece in April, but only after coming through a nerve-shredding night at the Galpharm.
Attacking from all angles, Town made a first-half breakthrough when Anthony Pilkington shot home.
Then a second-half headed double by big Alan Lee had both sets of fans on the edge of their seats.
It was agonising in the extreme as the chance of a first Town trip to the new Wembley disappeared, but at least this victory restored a lot of pride.
Town made three changes from Saturday’s 4-1 win at Exeter, with keeper Nick Colgan coming in for Ian Bennett to make his debut.
Scott Arfield and Antony Kay returned as full-backs Jack Hunt, who was cup-tied, and Gary Naysmith, who was rested, sat it out.
Lee Peltier was back at right-back after a spell in midfield while Kevin Kilbane took the left-back berth, Arfield and Kay joining Joey Gudjonsson in a midfield three.
Carlisle, without skipper Paul Thirlwell because of a calf injury, gave a full debut to former Rangers striker Rory Loy and included on-loan Stoke midfielder Ben Marshall despite a fractured hand.
Town started with real urgency, winning three free-kicks in the Carlisle half in the first three minutes, but none of them came to anything.
Carlisle’s first opportunity came on the counter-attack in the seventh minute, but Francois Zoko’s cross after a run down the left was comfortably collected by Colgan.
Jamie McCombe’s back header from Lee Peltier’s long throw in the 17th minute was held by Adam Collin, then Peter Murphy came to Carlisle’s rescue, cutting out an Arfield pass which looked set to find Gary Roberts in space on the edge of the penalty area.
There was relief for Town in the 20th minute, when Loy seized on a loose pass by Gudjonsson only to put a ball intended for Marshall into touch.
Colgan, who had made a confident start, punched clear from Town old boy James Berrett’s 23rd-minute corner and home fans were happy to see Zoko, hovering on the edge of the area, mistime his attempted shot.
At the other end, captain Peter Clarke headed Pilkington’s 26th-minute flag kick wide – but within four minutes, Town had the breakthrough goal they craved.
Colgan’s upfield kick found its way to Lee, and his pass was touched on by Gudjonsson to Pilkington, who brought the ball down neatly and beat Collin with a well-placed shot into the left-hand corner.
Carlisle had to scramble to deal with a couple of corners as Town pushed for a quick follow-up, then in the 37th minute, Collin did well to collect Roberts’ low cross as Lee and Pilkington lurked.
Ex-Leeds defender Lubo Michalik’s free-kick was easily claimed by Colgan, but Town were soon back on the attack, and came close in the 40th minute when Clarke’s clever backheel from Pilkington’s corner was pushed away for a corner by Collin. Carlisle’s keeper then had to come well out of his area to head clear as Roberts chased McCombe’s long upfield pass on 43 minutes.
Carlisle came out firing for the second half, and it took a goalline clearance by Arfield to prevent Craig Curran scoring from Berrett’s 47th-minute corner.
Town hit back, however, and Gudjonsson came agonisingly close with a rising shot from Roberts’ cross.
Boss Lee Clark made his first change in the 57th minute, bringing on Saturday’s hero Danny Cadamarteri for Kay, but it was defender McCombe who came close to extending the lead, shooting over from close range when Kilbane crossed in the 65th minute.
Town’s second did arrive in the 70th minute when Lee, having forced Michalik into conceding a corner, met Roberts’ flag kick with a firm downward header which gave Collin no chance.
Roberts was delivering some teasing crosses, and the busy Collin did well to paw the ball away a minute later.
Carlisle were starting to look shaky, and Town took advantage by notching their third goal in the 81st minute, with Lee again heading home, this time from a Pilkington corner.
And the rampant Lee came within inches of a hat trick – and match leveller – with another header, this time from Roberts’ cross.
It was gripping stuff, and Clarke was next to test Collin with a 20-yard shot as Town piled on the pressure – but sadly to no avail.