Nigeria advanced to the final of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday night following a penalty shoot-out victory over South Africa in Bouaké.
The match ended 1-1 after extra-time and Nigeria claimed the penalty session 4-2. Extra-time substitute Kelechi Iheanacho drove home the decisive kick.
The 27-year-old Leicester City forward - once touted to become an illustrious international marksman - has been eclipsed by Victor Osimhen and had not featured in the tournament before his introduction after 102 minutes of the semi-final.
He ripped his shirt off and sprinted to the Nigeria fans at the other end of the stadium as he revelled in his moment as his nation's saviour.
But for Ademola Lookman's clumsiness, Iheanacho would not have had the chance to shine.
Lookman could have wrapped up the tie in the 85th minute as South Africa sought an equaliser. But the Atalanta striker tried to take the ball round the South Africa goalkeeper Ronwen Williams and was thwarted.
In the prelude to the game at the Stade de la Paix, the Nigeria boss José Peseiro cracked down on the idea that his side would be favourites for the tie.
And the 63-year-old's caution was vindicated during an opening half in which his charges were forced to run after the ball and South Africa monopolised the chances.
Themba Zwane forced Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali into action in the 16th minute and Percy Tau should have put South Africa ahead 11 minjutes later.
A ricochet took the ball to him 15 metres from goal but the Al Ahly striker snatched at his shot and it trickled tamely to Nwabali
A heavy touch betrayed Tau a few minutes later as he outsprinted Ajayi Adesewo down the left and bore down on goal.
Tau then turned provider setting up Evidence Makgopa whose side-footed shot was arcing into the left hand corner before Nwabali's flying save prevented the opener.
"Tactically I think we neutralised Nigeria by using three defenders," said South Africa head coach Hugo Broos.
"We knew there was a danger with their two wingers and we thought the best solution was another central defender."
Unsurprisingly, Nigeria started the second-half with more urgency but could not carve out any openings in the tournament's second best defence.
But midway through the second-half Victor Osimhen picked up the ball and drove towards goal down the right hand side of the South Africa penalty area. Mothobi Mvala tripped him and referee Amin Mohamed Omar pointed to the penalty spot.
Skipper William Ekong stepped up against Williams who had saved four penalties during the shoot-out victory against Cape Verde.
For his strike against Cote d'Ivoire in the second game of the group stages on 18 January, Ekong opted for power down the middle. Nearly three weeks later, he went in the same direction but scuffed the shot.
Fortunately for the 30-year-old, Williams had committed himself to the left and could not recover rapidly enough to stop the ball rolling tauntingly over the line.
Makgopa flashed a shot past Nwabali's left hand post as South Africa sought parity
With two minutes remaining, Osimhen thought he had sealed the victory when he finished off a counterattack.
But the video assistant referees spotted Alhassan Yusuf's foul on Tau before the attack and Omar awarded a penalty.
Tebono Mokoena thrashed home and in the six minutes of stoppage-time South Africa went for blood.
Nwabali saved a free kick and Khuliso Mudau blazed the rebound over the bar for what would been the winner.
"We could have killed Nigeria before the end of normal time," lamented Broos
"But we didn't do it. Penalties are a lottery. Four days ago, we didn't play that well and came through on penalties against Cape Verde. Today we played well and lost."
South Africa will play the third place play-off on Saturday against Democratic Republic of Congo who lost 1-0 to Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan on Wednesday ngiht.
"South Africa did a fantastic job," Peseiro reflected. "Congratulatons to them and their coach. It was a very good victory against a very good team. Together they created more problems for us than all the other teams."