They had a one-player advantage for half the match but the Lions' desperation to win their first title took its toll on the newly-crowned champion Crusaders team, with coach Scott Robertson admitting they were "shattered" in the final quarter.
Converted tries from Malcolm Marx and Corne Fourie with 15 minutes remaining narrowed the Crusaders' previously healthy margin to 25-17 and opened the door for one of the most incredible comebacks in Super Rugby finals history, but Robertson's men, exhausted by their recent travel and playing at 1700m above sea level, stayed strong.
"We tried to hold the ball but they were good even with 14 men," Robertson said after flanker Kwagga Smith was shown a red card for his dangerous tackle on David Havili two minutes before halftime. "Our boys were shattered with 20 to go. We needed 12 on the bench. We knew in the last 20 minutes the Lions have won the majority of their games here over a number of years. When it got down to eight points and they had all the momentum and all the hype... we were just scrambling."
The Crusaders' victory, the first time a team has won a championship after crossing the Indian Ocean, and the franchise's eighth title in total, provided a fairytale finish for Robertson in his first year as head coach.
It's the first time a coach has won a title after winning it as a player - with his assistant Leon MacDonald similarly successful - and it allowed Robertson to perform what is now a trademark breakdancing celebration on the middle of the pitch. Afterwards he hugged a bewildered photographer.
"The 'hoo hey Razor Ray' song tends to come out at the end of these campaigns," Robertson told New Zealand media afterwards. "I'll more happily do it when we have situations like that. The boys start singing and you start to get a tingle in the old toes and off you go. It's a great way to finish the campaign."
For Lions coach Johan Ackermann, off to Gloucester, there was no such joy. But he and his players should extremely proud to have been so competitive in a match which could have got away from them.
He appeared resigned to his team's fate in a halftime interview, but for Robertson, the man known as 'Razor' since his playing days, the victory could hardly have been sweeter.
"I'm just really, really pleased for the boys, for the team," he said. "They've worked so hard and got so close, the most consistent side in Super rugby history... it means we won't get questions from journalists at the start of every season like 'it's been a long time since you've won it, how important is it that you win this year?'.
"Those questions are gone, it plays on their minds. We've got a lot of All Blacks who have been successful on that front and now we've got All Blacks' Crusaders who have made their own history in a famous jersey."
Of the red card decision by referee Jaco Peyper, Robertson said: "Jaco was calm, he went through a process. The TMO confirmed that process... the right outcome came. Was it good for the final? No. Was it tough on the Lions? Yes. That's footy, Kwagga Smith's a great player and it's a shame it had to come to that, but the rules and the laws are as they are."
The Crusaders, scheduled to arrive home from Johannesburg late on Monday, got off to a brilliant start through Seta Tamanivalu and the impressive Jack Goodhue, but once Kieran Read scored after halftime they had to defend as never before. It proved to be enough.
"Defence wins championships and that won it for us tonight," Robertson said, before dancing off into the night.