For the first hour, the Lions had been battered and bullied by an awesome display of power rugby.
Prop Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira set the tone, scrummaging Lions tighthead and England World Cup winner Phil Vickery into such an unrecognisable state that he was substituted after just 45 minutes.
For an hour, the Lions couldn't handle a Springboks side whose proud rugby tradition was scarred by the ignominy of a home Test series defeat 12 years ago.
Their first defeat in seven games on tour had effectively been signed, sealed and delivered during the first 60 minutes.
But South Africa were in panic mode by the end after coach Peter de Villiers used all seven substitutes, with skipper John Smit making a questionable return in the closing stages, replacing Deon Carstens, who did not appear to be injured.
Smit and debutant flanker Heinrich Brussow touched down for the Springboks, with fly-half Ruan Pienaar kicking 13 points and full-back Francos Steyn booting a penalty.
It took South Africa only five minutes to stamp their mark on the contest.
Full-back Lee Byrne and wing Ugo Monye, both making their Lions Test debuts, dithered in defence, handing the Springboks an attacking platform that they capitalised on.
They needed just three phases of play to break down the Lions' defence, and it was Smit who crashed over.
Pienaar added the extras, and the Lions needed an immediate response which they came within inches of delivering.
Monye was freed in the corner, but the combined tackling of Springboks wing JP Pietersen and centre Jean de Villiers denied him a touch down, although only after video referee Berdos' lengthy deliberation.
A Pienaar penalty extended South Afica's lead to 10-0, yet the Lions remained an attacking threat as hooker Lee Mears put flanker David Wallace clear, but another chance went begging before Stephen Jones - alarmingly - missed an easy penalty.
Steyn then showed him how it should be done, finding the target from a touchline spot 45 metres out, extending South Africa's lead to 13-0.
The Lions had their hands full with Mtawarira at scrum time, but they recovered their composure to sting South Africa by crafting a well-executed try.
An impressive Jamie Roberts set up the score by brushing off Pietersen and Adi Jacobs, allowing his co-centre Brian O'Driscoll to burst through and find Croft in support.
Jones' conversion cut the gap to six points, before Lions wing Tommy Bowe had a try disallowed when referee Bryce Lawrence ruled midfield crossing by Roberts and O'Driscoll.
Another Pienaar penalty - his third successful strike from three attempts - left the Lions nine points in arrears as half-time approached, with South Africa starting to pile on pressure.
Bowe was left isolated in defence, and Pienaar capitalised after the Ireland wing infringed by not releasing.
At 19-7 up, South Africa were in control of the contest. And to complete a troublesome opening half for the tourists, they lost an injured Byrne after 38 minutes, with Wales full-back making way for Rob Kearney.
Vickery's painful experience ended just five minutes into the second period - he was replaced by Wales tighthead Adam Jones - yet it was merely a cue for South Africa to turn the screw.
They sacrificed a kickable penalty, won the resulting lineout and then mauled their way over the Lions' line, with Brussow touching down.
Pienaar converted, and de Villiers made several substitutions, believing the contest was as good as won - his entire bench was on with 10 minutes remaining - before Croft's second try cut the gap.
It sparked the Lions into a rousing finale, and only a brilliant Morne Steyn tackle denied Monye a try in the corner.
But Phillips then sniped his way over for try number three, which Jones converted, and the Springboks were in disarray as Smit returned for Carstens.