WILL Nicholls scored a stoppage-time equaliser to keep Barnstaple Town’s unbeaten run alive.
They were facing a first defeat in 24 Toolstation Western League matches when the substitute striker fired in a 93rd-minute goal to claim a 3-3 draw against Ashton and Backwell United.
Barnstaple came from behind three times against tenacious opponents and, with second-placed Cribbs losing 4-2 at Corsham Town, did enough to extend their lead at the top of the First Division to two points.
After a bright start they were in real danger of being beaten in the league for the first time since August 12 as a hard-working and energetic Ashton and Backwell side pressed them into mistakes.
In the first five minutes, Jack Jenkins glanced a header just wide and Ryan Turner saw a flick from a Jenkins free-kick cleared off the line by Backwell defender Adam Crooks.
So it was against the run of play when the visitors took a 15th-minute lead with Lee Pitman getting free of the Barnstaple centre-backs and slotting past goalkeeper Jimmy Thorne.
The home side struck back immediately when United keeper Lewis Coombes patted down a Billy Tucker free-kick and Dave Pearse swivelled to lash in the equaliser.
But they were level for only two minutes as Backwell regained the lead in similar fashion, Ryan Crouch stabbing in after Thorne spilled a Connor Biggins free-kick from the left.
It had the potential to be an entertaining game if only the referee’s whistle had allowed the play to flow.
The impressive Pitman went close in the 55th minute when he got away down the right flank and flashed a shot across goal.
Barnstaple were struggling to produce any quality touches but a rare moment of class drew them level again on the hour. Turner picked up the ball in midfield, ghosted past a couple of challenges and tucked away his 25th league goal of the season.
Again, though, they were on level terms for only a short time as Leon Britton used his head to steer a well-delivered Pitman free-kick past Thorne.
Launching the ball forward finally produced some chances for Barnstaple in the last five minutes.
Coombes reacted brilliantly to tip a Turner header over and backed up his save by punching the resulting corner away.
Crooks then made his second crucial intervention of the match to block a shot from Steve Holland.
In the third of five added minutes, a long throw-in from the left caused a scramble in the area and Nicholls pounced to smash in Barnstaple’s third and final equaliser.
Barnstaple Town (4-4-2): Jimmy Thorne; Ross Jones (Scott Huxtable 81), Aaron Harper-Penman, Josh Phillips, Liam Gregory; Jed Harper-Penman (Steve Holland 78), Jack Jenkins, Lee Francis, Billy Tucker (Will Nicholls 71); Dave Pearse, Ryan Turner. Subs not used: James Mayne, Ryan Draper.
Ashton and Backwell United (4-3-3): Lewis Coombes; Aaron Allen, Ryan Crouch, Adam Crooks, Miles Allen; Sam Thomas, Paris Allen, Brendan Abood (Connor Flicker 81); Lee Pitman, Leon Britton, Connor Biggins. Subs not used: Jack Dicker, Cameron Man, Lee Delaney, Ian Milton.