Two tries apiece from Waisake Naholo and Matt Faddes helped the Highlanders end the Crusaders' eight-match unbeaten run with a 34-26 victory in a pulsating Super Rugby clash in Dunedin.
Replacement loose forward Liam Squire then scored a 71st minute try following a sustained, high pace period of play that killed off any hopes of a comeback for the Crusaders.
Lima Sopoaga added nine points with the boot for the defending Super Rugby champions, who had shown their title credentials against the Chiefs last week with a 26-13 win in Hamilton.
It was the Crusaders' winning streak, however, that had them firming as competition favourites and they started the game looking every inch the form team of the competition.
They punched over the advantage line and stretched the vaunted Highlanders' defence across the field to open up gaps that had previously not been found by other sides.
Two disallowed tries, first to captain Kieran Read and then lock Luke Romano, within the space of two minutes seemed to switch the momentum of the game, however, after the Crusaders had dominated the first quarter.
The Highlanders finally got some field position and Naholo finished off their first real attacking foray when he caught a deft cross kick from Sopoaga to score in the corner and get them back into the game at 9-8.
Crusaders flyhalf Richie Mo'unga then slotted his fourth penalty goal to inch the visitors 12-8 ahead but the home side then took control of the scoreboard when Faddes was put into a midfield gap following a long pass by scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
Naholo then grabbed his second try following more superb build-up work and with Sopoaga adding his first conversion, the home side took a 20-12 lead into halftime.
The Highlanders again showcased their dangerous counter-attack after the break when Faddes broke a feeble midfield tackle from Jone Macilai to send the large student contingent in "the Zoo" section of Otago Regional Stadium into raptures.
The visitors, however, managed to get some field position to go with their possession and when Joe Wheeler was sinbinned for a shoulder charge, the Highlanders' defence finally broke with Jordan Taufua crossing for the Crusaders' first try.
Squire's try, however, capped off an incredible period of play that swept back and forth for what appeared to be an age to clinch victory, before Israel Dagg scored a consolation try for the Crusaders after the hooter.