Three days after Stoops ripped his team for a poor practice and warned that the Wildcats would "get rolled" by the No. 13 Gamecocks if they didn't change their approach, UK battled back from a 21-0 deficit to put itself in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter.
Heavily-favored South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC) ultimately held on, but not before sweating out a crucial third-and-three play with 2:22 remaining that could have given the upset-minded visitors one more shot.
Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC) appeared to have Mike Davis stopped for a loss near midfield, but the Gamecocks' running back slipped a tackle behind the line of scrimmage by UK safety Eric Dixon and split Nate Willis and Za'Darius Smith for a 5-yard gain that effectively ended the game.
The play helped South Carolina hold off a UK rally which saw the Cats score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"I just told them to just keep on grinding," Stoops said of his postgame talk with the Cats. "I think it opened up some eyes that we can play with some very good people.
"I told them I'm not worried about anything else but what's in this locker room and what they believe in and how we're going to prepare to get better."
The Cats did that Saturday night, despite a rough start that made it look like Stoops' practice tirade was prophetic. South Carolina raced to a 21-0 lead in the first 15:40 of play and had outgained Kentucky 228-34.
Things began to click for UK late in the third quarter, though, as sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow drove the Cats 75 yards in 12 plays, capped by his 3-yard touchdown pass to receiver Demarco Robinson to pull within 27-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Kentucky's Malcolm McDuffen forced a fumble that the Cats recovered on the South Carolina 35. Five plays and a Gamecock personal foul penalty later, Whitlow found receiver Ryan Timmons open in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-21 with 11:50 remaining in the game.
South Carolina quickly countered with a seven-play, 89-yard drive, highlighted by quarterback Connor Shaw's 31-yard keeper. He capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run and completed a 2-point conversion pass to Nick Jones to make it 35-21 at the 8:05 mark.
Back came the suddenly-resurgent UK offense on the next possession, driving 81 yards in eight plays to make it a one-score margin again, 35-28, with 4:02 remaining. Whitlow completed passes of 22 and 33 yards on the drive to tight end Jordan Aumiller and receiver Javess Blue to march the Cats into scoring position.
But South Carolina was able to run the clock out on its following possession after the key third-down conversion run by Davis.
"There's a lot of plays in the game I wish we could do over again," Stoops said, "and right there, we had an opportunity on third down. I believe we had somebody in place there and just missed the tackle. We had an opportunity to get a 1-yard loss. We'll just keep on grinding until we make those plays."
The Cats' comeback effort put a scare into veteran South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who said, "We made them look like the Green Bay Packers in the second half."
Shaw completed 17 of 20 passes for 262 yards and one touchdown to lead the Gamecocks. He also rushed for 50 yards on nine carries and a score. Davis led the South Carolina ground attack with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
Whitlow, who earned the start and went the distance at quarterback for UK, completed 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in perhaps his finest performance as a Cat. He also rushed 17 times for 69 yards and a score.
"I was glad to see one of our quarterbacks make it through the whole game," Stoops said. "He had some ups and downs, just like you'd expect on the road in a hostile place, but I was very proud of him and the way we moved the ball and gave ourselves an opportunity to win had we, defensively, come up with a couple of stops late in the game."
• South Carolina leads the series 17-7-1, including 8-3-1 in Columbia. USC has won three in a row.
• Kentucky won the time of possession battle for the first time this season, 30:15 to 27:43.
• UK was 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions, improving to 8-for-11 on the season in those situations.
• Kentucky returns to action on Saturday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. when the Wildcats play host No. 1 Alabama at Commonwealth Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN2.