Leicester Tigers' run in this season's LV= Cup ended with a 30-22 semi-final defeat to Exeter Chiefs at Welford Road on Sunday afternoon.
Tigers took an early lead through Michele Rizzo's first try for the club but Chiefs, the defending LV= Cup holders, hit back with tries for Elvis Taione and Fetu'u Vainikolo to lead 20-16 at the break.
Tigers were unable to make the most of their opportunities in the second period, notably when the Chiefs went down to 14 men midway through the half.
Brad Thorn, Neil Briggs and George Catchpole all went close but the visitors weathered the storm and scored the decisive try five minutes from time through replacement hooker Greg Bateman to book a date in next Sunday's LV= Cup Final against Saracens at Franklin's Gardens.
International quartet Robert Barbieri, Thorn, Blaine Scully and Christian Loamanu returned to the Tigers team. Scully started at full-back, with Matt Smith and Miles Benjamin recalled on the wings. Tommy Bell teamed up with David Mele in the half-back positions, while Loamanu partnered Catchpole at centre.
In the forwards, Thorn joined captain Sebastian De Chaves at lock, while Jack Whetton came in to start alongside Barbieri and Laurence Pearce in the back row.
Tigers made a stunning start, scoring the game's opening try with less than five minutes on the clock. Benjamin broke onto Bell's inside pass and made 40m up to the Exeter 22 where he had Catchpole in support. Tigers flooded forward and quick recycling allowed Rizzo to score next to the posts for his first Leicester try. Bell converted to give Tigers a 7-0 lead.
Catchpole then combined with Laurence Pearce to get Tigers back on the front foot and when Exeter came in at the side of the ruck Tigers had a penalty on the right flank but Bell's kick came back off the left-hand post.
Catchpole was at the centre of the action in the early stages and was called on to make a try-saving tackle moments later. Max Bodilly made a lovely break from full-back, fixed last man Scully and fed Tom James, but Catchpole's tackle took man and ball in to touch as the line beckoned.
It was Exeter's turn to press and they had Tigers under pressure at a close-range lineout, hooker Elvis Taione rejoined the maul to apply the close-range finish. Ceri Sweeney landed the conversion to level the scores after 15 minutes.
Bell booted Tigers back in front with a monster penalty from inside his own half after the Chiefs went offside in midfield.
It was a short-lived lead, however. Pearce tried to make the most of an overlap on the left but his pass was intercepted by wing Vainikolo who had a free run to the posts. Sweeney's conversion gave the Chiefs a 14-10 lead.
Bell's boot gave Chiefs plenty to think about, with one penalty from hand taking Leicester some 60m into Exeter territory.
Tigers set up camp in the Chiefs half, going through the phases before releasing Catchpole down the left. He was held in the tackle and Bell landed the resulting penalty to leave Tigers 14-13 behind after 30 minutes.
The Exeter maul was a powerful weapon in their armoury and was rewarded with a penalty that Sweeney kicked to restore the Chiefs four-point lead.
Bell trimmed the deficit with a scrum penalty before Sweeney landed his second penalty just before half-time to give Exeter a 20-16 lead at the break.
Tigers conceded a penalty right at the start of the second period when Barbieri chased Mele's clearance from an offside position believing it had been touched by Exeter hands. Sweeny landed his kick to move the Chiefs seven points ahead.
Bell was unable to land his first penalty of the half, a testing kick from the right flank that drifted across the posts.
At the next penalty, Bell kicked to the corner to give Tigers a lineout platform 5m out. De Chaves set up the drive and, with Welford Road in full voice, Tigers had Exeter under pressure. Pearce pealed off the back and Catchpole came through on crash-ball but was stopped just short.
Tigers maintained the pressure and drew a penalty in front of the posts. Bell took advantage by landing a drop goal to leave Tigers 23-19 behind.
Julian Salvi and Logogvi'i Mulipola were introduced from the bench with 25 minutes remaining and Salvi's first contribution was to win a penalty for being hit with a high tackle. However, Bell's kick went dead in touch to concede the scrum.
Thorn made a stunning 30m break to take Tigers into the Exeter 22. Leicester recycled quick ball only for Bodilly to tackle from an offside position. The Exeter full-back received a yellow card and Bell's penalty cut the deficit to a point with 18 minutes remaining.
Benjamin made a brilliant break through the heart of the Exeter defence and had Neil Briggs in support. The hooker had a 40m run to the line but was hauled down 10m out by Ben White. Tigers moved the attack to the left where Thorn continued the move. He was stopped 5m out where Tigers were pinged for coming in at the side in trying to secure quick ball.
A mistake by Sweeney, kicking out on the full, gave Tigers a lineout in the Exeter 22. From the set-piece, Tigers inched their way up to the line but were pinged in the shadow of the posts for holding on and the chance went away.
Instead it was the Chiefs, restored to 15 men, who were the next to score what proved the decisive try. The source was again the driving maul, which Tigers were unable to halt and replacement hooker Bateman applied the finish. Sweeney landed the conversion to seal Exeter's place in next week's Final.