JON STEAD enhanced his growing reputation with two superbly-taken goals and then underlined the hard work which is paying off both for him and for Town.
The 20-year-old looked to have done enough for three points when he responded to Mansfield's second-half equaliser with a first headed goal of the campaign.
It seemed his battling colleagues would hang on under great pressure and end their losing away run of six straight games with a win, but Town were robbed 62 seconds into stoppage time by substitute Craig Disley.
"It was a disappointing finish because we know we should have won but, with our away form being so poor it was an encouraging result and performance," said Stead, who led the line on his own in the absence of Andy Booth.
"If someone had offered us four points beforehand against Hull and Mansfield we would have taken them, so it's important we look ahead positively and if we can win against Cheltenham on Saturday it will set us up nicely.
"It was important to pick our away form up and to say we've come to one of the best sides in the division, taken them on with a very young side and missing a couple of key players, I think it's a very pleasing outcome."
A magnificent following of 1,044 saw Danny Schofield chip Town into the lead on 15 minutes after intercepting a terrible pass out from goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington.
Schofield then turned provider for the second after 31 minutes, sweeping an early cross to Stead who sold Pilkington the perfect dummy before sliding the ball home.
Mansfield, beaten only once at home all season and on a run of four successive wins, looked down and out until Rhys Day nodded them back into contention in the third minute of added time at the break - but where the minimum two extra minutes came from only referee Graham Laws will know as the physios were never on.
It prompted a switch to three forwards by Mansfield manager Keith Curle in the second half and resulted in a sustained spell of pressure which brought an equaliser for big Dave Artell on 62 minutes.
Stead stunned the home side barely a minute later by heading home superbly from Schofield's cross and, with Phil Senior saving brilliantly from sub Neil MacKenzie late on, it looked like Town would take the spoils until Disley's intervention from an Iyeseden Christie cross.
Curle praised his side for the belief which has made them firm promotion contenders and acknowledged Town are getting stronger and will challenge at the top - providing they can keep their best players.
It was a direct reference to Stead, whose battling show typified Town's spirit under the leadership of stand-in captain Lee Fowler in a match packed full of incident.
"There is a bit of difference when Boothy isn't in the side because we can't be quite so direct and we miss him at defensive set pieces, but I thought we worked well and at least we stopped the rot away from home," added Stead, who went perilously close to a hat trick with a drive against a post.
"Danny Schofield did ever so well to set up my first goal and the keeper went down very easily when I threw him the shoulder.
"There were a few choice words from him as I went past to score - he was quite disappointed you might say - and it made me chuckle a bit, while I was really pleased to score one with my head, especially in front of our own fans who were magnificent."
More than one observer remarked it was finishing of the £1m-plus calibre, and Stead explained: "A lot of it is down to the work I do on the training ground with Terry Yorath.
"We do extra shooting practice just about every day and it's a big help, giving me the confidence to hit the net.
"I went four matches without a goal until last week, but now I'm back on the scoresheet with three in two games and I'm happy with myself."
You can bet his efforts will spark more talk of offers from above - Sunderland were thumped 3-0 at Crewe - but Stead just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"It's been a bit quiet this week!" he beamed.
"I just take it all with a pinch of salt and I'm just pleased to be playing well and improving.
"There is bound to be talk, but you can see by the way I'm playing, it's not affecting me."
Well said, because he spearheaded Town's excellent counter-attacking with solid support from Schofield and Tony Carss, while Fowler and Jon Worthington worked tirelessly (the latter is now out suspended until Boxing Day).
Nat Brown did plenty of good work at the back and the defence as a whole were made to work tremendously hard, Liam Lawrence causing a stack of problems in the second half.
The pace and strength of Junior Mendes was also a worry, while Senior's block on Christie at the start of the second half was simply tremendous.
Town were waiting to get Efe Sodje on as the fourth official showed four minutes of stoppage time at the end, but he had not had time to punch in the numbers before Disley levelled it up.
It was a shame for Town, but this was a much-improved away performance and one which must be built on as the top half of the table gets increasingly close.
TOWN FORM 3-5-2
Phil Senior Tremendous saves to deny Christie and MacKenzie but came under huge pressure in the second half Rating: 7/10
Nat Brown Made some cracking headed clearances and played so well against Wayne Corden that he was taken off at the half Rating: 8/10
Anthony Lloyd Another battling display from the teenager, but he had his work cut out against the raiding of Liam Lawrence Rating: 7/10
Paul Scott Didn't shirk the challenge as Mansfield powered forward in the second half and kept Larkin pretty quiet Rating: 7/10
Ian Hughes Misdirected a few headers and clearances but used all his experience to keep the defence going strong Rating: 7/10
Nathan Clarke Had a terrific battle with Mendes and, while he got turned on a couple of occasions, he did his bit for the team effort Rating: 7/10
Lee Fowler Honoured to be captain and responded with a driving display. Set up the second-goal move with a brilliant pass Rating: 7/10
Jon Worthington Ran his socks off and made some valuable clearances inside the six-yard box. He will be missed during his ban Rating: 7/10
Danny Schofield Playing behind Stead, he was full of tricks and endeavour and richly deserved his goal. Very good performance Rating: 8/10
Tony Carss Linked the play well on the break and rarely wasted a pass despite the pressure on space and time in the centre Rating: 7/10
Jon Stead One of his best shows of an already excellent season and his finishing was top class. Worked immensely hard Rating: 9/10
Pilkington, Hassell, Artell, Day, Vaughan, Lawrence, Curtis, Williamson (Disley 70), Corden (Christie HT), Mendes (MacKenzie 85), Larkin.
Subs not used: White, Dimech.
Led the line superbly in the absence of Andy Booth. Battled for every ball, chased every lost cause and deserved to be rewarded with a win and a hat trick.The two goals he scored oozed quality, but this was a performance any striker would have been proud of
Mansfield's first goal, headed in off a post by Rhys Day from Liam Lawrence's cross, gave Mansfield a lifeline after being outplayed and they put Phil Senior under tremendous pressure in the second half
Subs used: Mansfield: Christie for Corden HT, Disley for Williamson 70, MacKenzie for Mendes 85. Town: None.
Subs not used: Mansfield: White, Dimech. Town: Onibuje, Martin, Mattis, Sodje, Edwards.
Scorers: Mansfield: Day 45, Artell 62, Disley 90. Town: Schofield 15, Stead 31 and 63.
Referee: Graham Laws (Whitley Bay).
Bookings: Mansfield: Vaughan, Christie. Town: Worthington, Brown, Scott.
Shots on target: Mansfield 9, Town 5.
Corners: Mansfield 6, Town 2.
Caught offside: Mansfield 4, Town 2.
Free-kicks awarded: Mansfield 13, Town 9.
Attendance: 5,828 (Away: 1,044).