A spirited performance from the Hatters wasn’t rewarded as ex-Town striker Jayden Stockley returned to haunt his former side late on in a 2-1 win for Preston North End.
Having gone ahead through Paul Gallagher early on, Town equalised towards the end of the first half after James Collins converted from the penalty spot.
Stockley would go onto have the final say though having been introduced with 15 minutes to go, as he was able to roll the ball into the back of the net in the 84th minute after it landed at his feet following a six-yard box scramble.
Manager Graeme Jones made four changes from the side that was defeated at Stoke City in midweek, with Luke Bolton returning after illness and Jacob Butterfield, Callum McManaman and Kazenga LuaLua coming into the starting XI.
Town went behind after five minutes after Matty Pearson gave away a penalty for holding in the penalty area from a corner. Paul Gallagher stepped up to take the spot-kick, Shea stood his ground and saved the effort impressively, but the North End captain was first to the rebound, firing it in to open the scoring.
Luke Berry had a half-chance to put the Town back on level terms as the midfielder sent in a corner, the ball was cleared out to Jacob Butterfield, he found Pearson out on the right who crossed, it found its way to Berry, who sent his effort into the side-netting after 15 minutes.
McManaman then saw his low effort from just inside the box deflected behind for a corner – that was crossed in Berry had a shot blocked before an effort from Bree was also saw his strike fly into a defender.
With 21 minutes on the clock, Pearson came to the rescue as he cleared Billy Bodin’s effort off the line with Alan Browne sliding in just behind ready to tuck it away.
With three minutes to go before half-time, Town pushed for an equaliser and found one, as Callum McManaman was upended in the box. Collins made no mistake from the box, firing down the middle, as Declan Rudd dived to his right.
It was Collins' seventh goal of the season and 52nd in a Town shirt, and it gave the Hatters something to protect as they came back out in resolute manner after the break.
North End didn't threaten as the well-organised and determined Luton side looked to hit the high-flying hosts on the break.
That plan looked to have paid off as Town had a glorious opportunity to take the lead in the 80th minute as Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu’s clearance was raced onto by substitute Harry Cornick, who was clean through on goal, but saw his low effort saved by Rudd.
Within seconds Mpanzu had the ball back in the danger area and fired at goal, only for Rudd to tip his powerful shot over the bar.
The Hatters would come to rue the missed opportunity, as former Town loanee Stockley was able to pass the ball into the back of the net from close ranger after it rolled kindly for him in the box after the Hatters had blocked a succession of efforts.
The result lifts North End up to third in the Championship table, while the Town remain 21st - two points above the drop zone - heading into two home fixtures against Swansea and Fulham.
Town: Shea, Bolton, Pearson, Bradley ©, Bree, Mpanzu, Butterfield (Tunnicliffe 61), Berry, McManaman, LuaLua, Collins.
Subs not used: Sluga, Shinnie, Cornick, Moncur, Jones, Sheehan.
Goals: Collins 43
Yellows: LuaLua, Berry, Bradley
PNE: Rudd, Fisher, Pearson, Browne, Gallagher (C), Hughes, Bauer, Huntington, Maguire, Nugent (Harrop 56), Bodin (Stockley 75).
Subs not used: Hudson, Clarke, Ledson, Stockley, Barkhuizen, Potts.
Goals: Gallagher 5, Stockley 84
Referee: Gavin Ward