MK Dons saw the League 1 play-offs slip further out of reach as they failed to hold off 10-man Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium.
Boss Paul Ince was sent to the stands just moments after Andy Barcham's crucial second-half equaliser, as the Gills twice came from behind to claim a vital point in their battle against relegation. After Adam Miller's free-kick had cancelled out David McCracken's 18th-minute opener, the Dons looked to have seized total control of proceedings by half-time.
Gills forward Dennis Oli recklessly got himself sent off by collecting two cautions in seven minutes towards the end of the first half and Jermaine Easter's 19th of the season looked to have cemented the advantage. But Barcham's well-taken leveller - tucked away after Dean Lewington's appeals for a foul by Rene Howe were waved away - leaves the Dons still eight points off the top six with just eight games remaining.
Handing recalls in midfield to Stephen Gleeson and Lewis Gobern, Ince's decision to move Luke Chadwick into the pocket behind lone striker Aaron Wilbraham looked a positive one as he, Gobern and Jermaine Easter were given licence to roam. But it was Gillingham who carved out the best of the early openings - Curtis Weston slashing wide with the goal in sight after great work from Howe and Barcham down the left and Darren Dennehy flashing a header across goal from Miller's corner.
So it was against the run of play that the Dons opened the scoring as Leven hammered a Chadwick-won free-kick into the wall and Chadwick himself headed back into the mix.
Without a goal for the Dons since arriving from Wycombe last summer, McCracken must have thought his wait would go on when Alan Julian turned his initial shot against the post. But the rebound fell kindly and the big centre-half cashed in. Having seen three leads slip by them at Brentford two weeks ago, the Dons should have been on their guard, but they were in front for barely 90 seconds as Gleeson was penalised for handball on the edge of the box.
Oli stood in the heart of the wall, waiting for Weston to tee up Miller, and duly stepped aside to create the necessary gap that Miller drilled accurately through. Julian was at full-stretch to deny Chadwick on 27 minutes after Wilbraham had centred for him inside the box. Then came the 12-minute spell that should have made all the difference.
Oli went tumbling theatrically inside the area under the challenge of James Tunnicliffe, drawing the wrath of referee Phil Crossley and a yellow card to his name. So it was almost suicidal of the former QPR striker to dive in on Lewington as the Dons skipper completed a meaningless clearance. Contact was hardly life-threatening, but it totally defied any logic having been booked just minutes previously. Ince reacted immediately, switching Easter to an outright striker's role alongside Wilbraham, and it paid off almost as quickly.
Gobern slalomed two defenders on the right flank before drifting a lovely ball into the box, which Gills defender Garry Richards could only head into Dennehy. Easter came to life instantly, improvising a brilliant volley from 10 yards that faded away from Julian and wrapped itself inside the far corner. It was the kind of finish that has taken the Welshman to within sight of the 20-goal mark this season and he was so close to reaching that figure moments after the restart - racing onto Gobern's throughball and smacking the crossbar with his lob over Julian. It would have killed Gillingham off completely and Ince knew it, visibly frustrated in the technical area as the hosts wriggled off the hook.
And as his side, confident in possession though they looked, struggled to strike the fatal blow that would have secured the win, Gillingham's resolve grew. Then as Lewington came to head a routine clearance just inside his own half, a mild shove from Howe sent his header skewing in behind. Sean O'Hanlon, on to replace Tunnicliffe at the break, was caught off guard, Barcham was already on the move and his finish beyond Willy Gueret was impressive.
Easter was booked for catching Julian as they contested a throughball in the Gills' box and that, combined with his fury over the Lewington challenge, pushed Ince to complain. What ever was said, it was not to Mr Crossley's liking, who promptly showed Ince the steps.
McCracken headed into the side netting and Easter was denied by a marvellous Dennehy block as the Dons tried to regain the initiative. Aaron Wilbraham battles with Garry Richards. But Gillingham's determination to hang on saw tempers flare towards the end - Wilbraham and Richards frequently exchanging words and Gleeson booked for a challenge Danny Jackman probably made more of than was necessary.
A frustrating afternoon for the travelling Dons supporters, leaving the Dons' play-off prayers hanging on an Easter weekend double header against rivals Charlton and Bristol Rovers.
Gillingham (4-4-2): Julian; Lewis, Richards (c), Dennehy, Nutter; Miller, Weston (Dickson 81), Jackman, Barcham; Oli, Howe.
Subs not used: Royce, Maher, Bentley, Palmer, Payne, Walker.
Goals: Miller 20, Barcham 65 Booked: Nutter, Oli, Howe Sent off: Oli 40
MK Dons (4-2-3-1): Gueret; Doumbe (Randall 80), Tunnicliffe (O'Hanlon 46), McCracken, Lewington (c); Gleeson, Leven; Easter, Chadwick, Gobern (Woodards 64); Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Searle, Davis, Carrington, Howell.
Goals: McCracken 18, Easter 45+2
Booked: Lewington, McCracken, Gleeson, Leven, Easter
Referee: Phil Crossley (Kent)