MK Dons suffered their first defeat in five games as Southampton staged a three-goal second-half fight-back at St Mary's Stadium.
In a game that attracted the Saints' biggest home attendance of the season, the Dons had weathered an early storm to lead at the break through Jason Puncheon's excellent free-kick. But the home side hit back after half-time to claim a fifth straight win, though Paul Ince's visitors certainly contributed to their own downfall during a testing afternoon on the south coast.
Saints boss Alan Pardew might have feared the worst when a Dons side with one of the division's best defensive records took the lead against the run of play through Puncheon's brilliance in the final moments of a competitive opening period. But two uncharacteristic defensive errors allowed first Dean Hammond and then Rickie Lambert to pierce the Dons' armour, before substitute David Connolly killed them off in stoppage time.
It's a result that continues Southampton's revival - Pardew's men climbing to 22nd in the table after overcoming their 10-point administration deduction - and will leave them eyeing the sides above them as they press on towards the Christmas period.
Points dropped by top two Leeds and Charlton mean the result doesn't affect the Dons' position among the chasing pack too greatly, though a positive result at home to sixth-placed Bristol Rovers next week will certainly be a priority. With illness rendering striker Aaron Wilbraham only fit enough for the bench, Ince reverted to the 4-5-1 formation that has served him so well - Puncheon providing the primary support for lone striker Jermaine Easter. But Southampton's speed out of the blocks meant it was Ince's defence, boosted by the return of Darren Powell, that was being examined.
Powell's return and Mathias Doumbe's subsequent switch to right-back meant the Dons were better-prepared to deal with the aerial threat of Lambert - a threat Southampton played towards at every opportunity. But it was Adam Lallana who had the first sight of goal on 10 minutes, beating Doumbe to Paul Wotton's header forward and forcing a stretching save from Gueret with his attempted lob.
Pardew's men were building the pressure 20,000 Saints fans could get behind and only a magnificent block from Doumbe prevented Lallana converting a cross from Papa Waigo N'Diyae a minute later. Impressive during his loan spell from Italian side Fiorentina, Waigo N'Diyae was a bundle of energy in the opening exchanges, and he should have given Saints the lead on 14 minutes, but headed straight at Willy Gueret from Lambert's inevitable header down. Pressing the Dons high up the pitch at a tempo that looked impossible to maintain, Southampton were firmly on the front foot and thought they'd made their breakthrough halfway through the first half.
Right-back Lloyd James, an attack-minded defender with a wonderful right foot, produced the first of several devilish crosses into the Dons box and Waigo N'Diyae turned the ball in off the underside of the crossbar only to see his celebrations cut short by the linesman's offside flag.
It was the peak of Southampton's pressure in the first period, but the Dons gradually started to fight their corner and, as Puncheon's influence grew, they started to look more comfortable. Jemal Johnson and Lewis Gobern, both back in the side after recent spells out, produced dangerous crosses that went unconverted from the left, before Puncheon was presented with a stage to perform. Radhi Jaidi, a Tunisian international of immense having played with both Bolton and Birmingham in the Premier League, should have known better than to needlessly climb over Easter a few yards outside his penalty area.
And Puncheon quickly showed him why as he curled a perfectly-guided shot over the wall and beyond Kelvin Davis. Dons were forced into a change at the break as Johnson, nursing a knock, was replaced by Blackburn loanee Aaron Doran and they tried to build on their breakthrough. Puncheon robbed Jaidi out on the right flank before lashing a dangerous ball through the box.
With his side not showing sufficient threat after the break, Pardew acted with the introduction of Connolly and Reading loanee Michail Antonio - the latter in particular bursting onto the scene straight away. Having seen his first dribble finish with a dangerous shot across the six-yard box, Antonio found himself in acres of space on the right from Lallana's switch, enough to tee up James to produce another lethal delivery.
The cross was accurate, Hammond unmarked, the ball in the net before Dons could react. Ince reacted with the introduction of Wilbraham as the Dons tried to take back the initiative, but Saints' tails were up and after Connolly had headed a bouncing ball wastefully at Gueret, Jaidi's goal-bound header from Antonio's cross was blocked brilliantly by Powell.
Dons looked to be standing strong, but when a free-kick was given against David McCracken for a foul on Antonio wide on the Saints right, they were caught napping as James' pull-back was swept home by the waiting Lambert. Suddenly forced to decide between chasing a decisive third and consolidation, Southampton's retreat almost allowed the Dons back into the game as a totally-unmarked McCracken headed Puncheon's corner wide.
Wilbraham then fired a long-range effort just past the post and substitute Sam Baldock's cross brought a hurried clearance from Morgan Schneiderlin. But as time ticked agonisingly away, Lewington, admirably trying to keep a ball in his own half alive, presented the ball to Connolly, who jabbed past a helpless Gueret from close range.
Southampton (4-3-3): Davis (c); James, Trotman, Jaidi, Harding; Hammond, Wotton (Antonio 53), Schneiderlin; Waigo N'Diaye (Connolly 53), Lambert, Lallana (Mills 87).
Subs not used: Bialkowski, Thomas, Perry, Mellis. Goals: Hammond 56, Lambert 74, Connolly 90+4
MK Dons (4-4-1-1): Gueret, Doumbe, Powell, McCracken, Lewington (c); Gobern (Wilbraham 63), Gleeson, Leven, Johnson (Doran 46); Puncheon; Easter (Baldock 75).
Subs not used: Searle, Davis, Howell, Swailes.
Goals: Puncheon 45
Attendance: 21,387 (1,053 away)
Referee: Mick Russell (Hertfordshire)