But no-one inside Rugby Park could deny that the home side had shown more than enough quality to outshine their guests, even if the only goal of the game arrived in contentious circumstances.
The 32nd-minute goal, which was ultimately dispatched clinically from the spot by Eamonn Brophy, was enough to earn Kilmarnock three points and a return to third spot as the Premiership campaign now heads into its final round of fixtures.
Holding the advantage over rivals Aberdeen, albeit through goal difference, they know that a victory over Rangers on Sunday would be enough to guarantee them a Europa League qualifying spot, unless Hibernian lose by a glut of goals to the Dons.
If they were to lose out on goal difference, Killie would rue days such as Saturday when they should have scored more against the Leith side and they will curse the intervention of goalkeeper Ofir Marciano as well as their own failings in those key moments.
The fact they only converted one of their chances probably only fuelled the frustration of the Hibs boss, pictured, who, like most in the ground, felt the penalty award was soft. But the way he expressed his disappointment, calling his former Sheffield Wednesday team-mate a “f*****g diver” as he walked past the press huddle, angered Bruce, who asked if he was “for real”. Having repeated his claim several times, Heckingbottom later said that his comment was open to interpretation but refused to categorically state whether it had been banter or delivered with real venom.
“I think that lacked class,” said the visibly irate Bruce. “He’s an old team-mate of mine and I expected better of him. If he had something to say to me then he should have done it in private. I’m certainly not a diver, that’s for sure.”
Referee Andrew Dallas gave the penalty when he deemed David Gray to be too physical with his Kilmarnock opponent at a corner and Bruce said there should be little surprise as he had already been warned. “The referee actually said to Gray at the previous corner to keep his hands off me. It was in my mind that if he is going to put his hands on me again then the ref will give the decision. It was a big goal and an important goal for us as it turned out,” said Bruce.
It was all that separated the sides come the final whistle. But despite the war of words, Heckingbottom admitted that his team had ultimately got what they deserved. No one was arguing about that.
From the outset the home side had been the better option going forward and despite the stakes looked composed and in control of the game throughout.
There were other goalmouth chances but Greg Taylor crashed a cross cum shot off the bar and Marciano was in top form as he denied Brophy on several occasions and snuffed out the dangers posed by some quality Chris Burke set-piece deliveries. But the best save of the lot was a sensational close-range stop from the impressive Gary Dicker.
“It was a good save,” said the Israeli. “I saw it late, so it was a quick reaction. But I am happy that I was able to push it away, because it was going in.”
For all Killie’s superiority, they too had to rely on their goalie late on when substitute Thomas Agyepong carved open a chance to drill an effort which Daniel Bachmann had to tip over the bar.
But now it all comes down to next weekend, with the Killie players determined not to let a stunning season end on a low. “The aim is to finish the job next week,” said Bruce. “It will be a tough match against Rangers, we know that from previous encounters this season. We will have to approach it right and fingers crossed we can match Aberdeen’s result and get into Europe.”