Oxford United were only denied victory by a last-gasp equaliser from Torquay United at the Kassam Stadium on Easter Monday.
The U’s remain in the play-offs only on goal difference from Crewe Alexandra after picking up only one point in their last three games, with just four games of the season.
United boss Chris Wilder made three changes to the side that lost 2-1 at Northampton Town on Friday, with the fit again Harry Worley replacing the suspended Michael Duberry in the heart of defence.
Andy Whing came back into the side in place of the injured Peter Leven, while James Constable led the attack in place of Scott Rendell, who dropped to the bench.
In a must-win game for two sides chasing promotion, the game started at a furious pace. Gulls ‘keeper Bobby Olejnik tipped over a curling Asa Hall shot on six minutes, before Ryan Clarke was called on to deny Torquay top scorer Rene Howe at the other end.
On-loan West Ham striker Cristiano Montano then shot over the bar on eight minutes when well placed.
There were goals in the game and the first one duly arrived for the visitors on 17 minutes. Worley made a hash of a backpass to Clarke and Howe ran through to tuck the ball past Clarke for his 14th goal of the season.
United, finding themselves behind early on for the third game running, looked to get back in the game but Dean Morgan and Montano often struggled to support the isolated Constable from wide.
The chances were flowing at the other end for Torquay, who showed why they are only being kept off the top spot in League Two by leaders Swindon Town.
Howe found the back of the net again only for play to be called back for offside, while Eunan O’Kane fired over the bar from 10 yards on the half hour mark.
Ten minutes before the break Constable had a rare chance to get a shot off but got the ball stuck under his feet, allowing the visitors to clear their lines.
With the clock running down, Olejnik spilled one shot and then had to dive at Whing’s feet to stop the midfielder sticking away the rebound, and then kept out a 20-yard drive from Morgan to send his side in 1-0 up.
With two minutes of the second half gone, Torquay should have made it 2-0 when Wright fluffed a headed clearance and Howe rounded Clarke, only for Worley to clear the ball off the line. The ball was bundled over the line by O’Kane, only for United to be saved by the linesman’s flag for a second time.
Constable was replaced by Rendell at the interval and Oxford thought they had equalised when Adam Chapman’s shot was blocked by Olejnik only as far as Hall but defender Brian Saah somehow got back and diverted the midfielder’s shot away from goal.
But it was all square on the hour when Liam Davis saw his shot deflected behind for a corner. Chapman stepped up and whipped in a curling cross that evaded everyone and found the top corner of the net.
The game bolstered the host’s determination and they flooded forward in search of a second goal. It took only eight minutes to arrive, Damian Batt breaking forward and crossing from the right for Montano who headed past Olejnik to send the crowd wild, his second goal in two games.
Morgan, Montano and Hall all had chances before United created a three-on-one with just Saah between them and goal, only to squander the opportunity when Montano’s cross was too far in front of the onrushing Rendell and Morgan.
Torquay were clinging on and their job was made harder when Ian Morris went in late on Whing in the middle of the pitch, with referee Dean Mohareb flourishing a straight red card to the striker.
United appeared to be cruising to a deserved victory, with Oli Johnson replacing Montano with five minutes remaining. But with 90 minutes on the clock substitute Taiwo Atieno chanced his arm and the back-pedalling Clarke, who appeared to be struggling with an injury, was unable to get back and keep the ball from the finding the back of the net.
The disappointment of having victory snatched away was writ large on the faces of the United players, who after a poor performance against Morecambe have bounced back to put in two good efforts in their last couple of games without getting the rewards.
It all sets up a crucial game at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday, when seventh-place United face Gillingham, two places and four points below them in the table.