COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the second time in four days, an emotional Mark Stoops who met the media.
Minutes after his Kentucky football team lost a hard-fought 35-28 game to South Carolina Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, Stoops was emotional. And disappointed.
"We in that locker room are changing a culture, and I believe that," Stoops said. "Sometimes I tell you guys that and I know everybody probably says, 'This guy's nuts' or 'He keeps on telling me there's good practices, good things going on,' and I believe that. We need to do things better as a whole organization, starting with myself and the coaching and all the players. We know we can do better. But I believe the culture is changing, and I thought that was evident tonight."
Four days earlier, Stoops had chastised his team's preparation, had predicted it would "get rolled" at No. 13 South Carolina if it didn't shape up. He said that a 21-point spread wasn't wide enough for the Gamecocks.
For a while on Saturday, it looked like he might be right.
The Gamecocks scored on their first three possessions and led 21-0, and it looked for all the world like South Carolina was on its way to a blowout win.
And then Jalen Whitlow and the UK offense got in a rhythm. And Kentucky's special teams forced a key turnover. And suddenly, the Wildcats (1-4, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) were in a game.
"Coach Stoops told us that before, that they were gonna come out and play as fast as they can," wide receiver Ryan Timmons said. "We just (had) to take the hit and punch them right back in the mouth. They ended up giving up, and we could've won the game there if we could've had more plays back."
South Carolina (4-1, 1-1) led 27-7 with 4:59 to play in the third quarter after a 41-yard field goal from Elliott Fry. It was the second time Kentucky forced the Gamecocks to settle for a field goal.
"I think the guys, they came back and fought their butt off the second half, which is what we needed them to do," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We didn't play good enough to win and there was plenty of things on defense that we didn't play well, we didn't coach well, we just wasn't good overall to win. But I am encouraged with their effort."
The offense was encouraging, too, particularly in the second half.
Whitlow led the Cats on a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that he capped with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Demarco Robinson. That cut the lead to 27-14 with 13:43 to play in the fourth quarter.
Kentucky's Malcolm McDuffen forced a fumble on the ensuing kick return that Dyshawn Mobley recovered, and five plays later, Whitlow hit Timmons on a 14-yard touchdown pass. With 11:50 to play in the game, the Cats trailed 27-21.
"It didn't surprise me," Stoops said of the rally. "I know we have good character. I know we have some guys that are caring, that care and that are trying."
But South Carolina had an answer.
The Gamecocks marched 89 yards in seven plays, and Connor Shaw's 2-yard touchdown run stretched the lead back to 35-21 with 8:05 to play.
"Kentucky didn't stop us all night," Shaw said. "We had confidence they wouldn't. That was the mentality we had on the 89-yard drive, and we just went to work."
But South Carolina struggled to stop Kentucky, too.
Whitlow led another scoring drive, this one 81 yards in eight plays, and he scored from a yard out to cut the lead back to 35-28. The Gamecocks ran out the final 4:02 and held on to win.
But they had to earn it.
"I was proud of our team because we did talk about (South Carolina getting off to a fast start) and prepare for it if they did that we would stay in there and not flinch, take their best shot and battle back and have an opportunity to make plays in the fourth quarter to win the game," Stoops said. "I was proud of the fact that we were in position to do that and very frustrated that we did not do that."
It wasn't a win.
But it was a step.
"We came on the road and played in one of the best environments in college football," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Our young guys did not flinch, which I didn't think they would. They did not flinch. We came on the road, hostile environment, and we've got a chance to win the game. Late in the fourth quarter, we had a chance to win the football game. That's what you build off of."