South Africa captain Graeme Smith felt the run out of Faf du Plessis was crucial after seeing his side just fall short of creating Test history in Johannesburg.
Having been set a target of 458 to win the series opener against India, the Proteas eventually fell agonisingly eight runs short of a record fourth-innings run chase.
Du Plessis and AB de Villiers both struck centuries for the hosts, who at one stage needed a further 20 from the final four overs of an absorbing match.
However, Du Plessis was crucially dismissed by Ajinkya Rahane's throw for 134, and from then on - with 16 needed off 18 balls - South Africa opted to quell their pursuit of runs and make sure they avoided defeat, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn deliberately batting out two maidens.
In the end they finished up on 450-7, Steyn hitting the final delivery for six, to mean West Indies' 418 to beat Australia in 2003 remains the highest successful chase.
"I thought we played it beautifully up until the moment Faf was run out, then you've got to back the guys' decisions out in the middle," Smith said.
"Chasing this down would have been incredible but when we started today, we wanted to set up our stall and make sure we went to Durban with an opportunity to win the series, and we've done that.
"I thought Faf and AB's knock was incredible, they'll go down in history as some of the greatest knocks in the game.
"To see Faf come out and bat at four and produce a performance like that was tremendous for us. He had a lot of pressure on his shoulders going into this game and he's answered his critics superbly again."
Smith's India counterpart Mahendra Singh Dhoni admitted the tourists nearly paid dearly for being overly-aggressive in the afternoon session on the final day at New Wanderers Stadium.
The drawn outcome means Dhoni is still waiting to celebrate his first Test victory on foreign soil since they got the better of the West Indies in Jamaica back in June of 2011.
"In the middle (session) we attacked a bit more than we should have but I was quite confident in our bowlers that if five, or five and a half, runs an over was needed, they would be able to defend that," he said.
"There was a situation where we could easily have lost this game but it was a big learning for the fast bowlers, next time we are in a situation like this they'll know how to bowl and how much to attack."
The two teams now move on to Durban for the second and final Test. The action gets underway on December 26 and can be seen live on Sky Sports.
Seamer Kyle Abbott - who took match figures of 9-68 in his only previous Test appearance - could play for South Africa in his home town after being drafted into their squad to replace the injured Morne Morkel.