COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is finally seeing the player he expected in Stephen Garcia.
The sophomore quarterback threw for three touchdowns, rushed for another and helped to clinch the win when he hurdled a Kentucky defender for a first down in the final minutes of the 25th-ranked Gamecocks' 28-26 victory Saturday.
"That was a big-time play," Spurrier said of Garcia's leap, "and sort of shows what he's capable of doing."
The play finally put away a pesky Kentucky team that lost to No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Alabama the last two weeks.
The Wildcats moved the ball well on South Carolina's third-rated SEC defense and led 17-14 at the half. But Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline left with a knee sprain early in the third quarter.
The Wildcats had a chance in the final five minutes after Randall Cobb's 2-yard TD run made it 28-26. But defensive end Cliff Matthews knocked down a potential tying two-point conversion pass and South Carolina ran out the clock.
"That was a fun ballgame," said Spurrier, now 17-0 against Kentucky in his career.
And it sets up something even bigger for South Carolina (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), which travels to face No. 3 Alabama next Saturday.
The Gamecocks needed 28 years between Top 5 wins, a drought then ended two weeks back with a 16-10 victory over then-No. 4 Mississippi.
Does South Carolina have something for the Crimson Tide?
"We'll talk about that Monday," safety Chris Culliver said.
Garcia came to campus in January 2007 with long, flowing hair and the adoration of South Carolina fans eager for Spurrier to win as big as he did at Florida. But Garcia had three run-ins with the law his first 15 months and was suspended for about all of his first two spring practices.
Spurrier had all but lost patience with his prospect, rarely saying anything positive about his work ethic or skills.
That changed this offseason when Spurrier brought one of his former Gators quarterbacks, G.A. Mangus, as an assistant to work with Garcia.
So far, it's been working. Garcia has cut down his mistakes -- his second-quarter interception ended a streak of 124 passes between INTs -- and grown in leadership.
He had TD throws of 10, 28 and 22 yards to freshman Alshon Jeffery, then jumped over from the 1-yard line to score what proved to be the decisive touchdown.
Nothing was bigger in Spurrier's eyes than when Garcia took to the air to hurdle defensive back Cartier Rice for the critical first down. Kentucky did not get the ball back again.
"[Spurrier] strives for perfection. He really demands that you be perfect," Garcia said. "It's going to be tough, but I feel like I'm getting there."
The Wildcats (2-3, 0-3) feel closer to where they want to go, too.
They led 17-14 at the break, nearly gaining what they averaged the entire game in losses to Florida and Alabama.
Things changed after Hartline left. Kentucky's offense did not have the same flow with backup Will Fidler: After converting 6 of 11 third downs in the opening half, the Wildcats were just 2 of 8 the last 30 minutes.
"This is a game I felt we had a real shot at winning, but we came up short," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.
Brooks was unsure how long Hartline might be out.
It was the second time in the past four seasons the Wildcats opened SEC play with three straight defeats.
Spurrier himself said this week he didn't understand South Carolina's mastery over Kentucky.
The Wildcats had some untimely mistakes in this one.
With Kentucky in sure field goal range in the third quarter, Cobb failed on a fake. Tight end T.C. Drake dropped a certain touchdown on the Wildcats' next series.
"That fake field goal was a dumb call by me," Brooks said.
Kentucky's Derrick Locke picked up a first down on fourth-and-2 a drive later, but the play was called back because of a false start.
South Carolina's Kenny Miles finished with 100 yards on 17 rushes. Jeffery had 138 yards on seven receptions.
Garcia was 16 of 23 for 233 yards, no doubt taking advantage of a Wildcats secondary without injured starting cornerbacks Trevard Lindley and Paul Warford.
South Carolina opened sluggishly. Maybe it was the early start, South Carolina's fall break or the relatively small crowd -- the 68,278 was the lowest attendance at Williams-Brice Stadium since the Gamecocks went 1-10 in 1998.
Spurrier was glad Garcia and the Gamecocks overcame their early problems.
"It's encouraging our guys are playing to the finish," he said.