If there was one thing fans can hang their hat on regarding Kentucky’s 71-65 loss to Ohio State on Saturday evening, it was the breakthrough performance of Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina.
After averaging 7.3 points and 7.2 rebounds through UK’s first six games this season, Sestina fractured his left wrist in late November, forcing him to miss three games. He played ten minutes against Utah on Wednesday, but he only took one shot and grabbed one rebound. His time on the floor felt more like a trial run to get his feet wet again more than trying to get actual production out of the 6-foot-9 forward.
“Coming back from my wrist injury that first game, I was hesitant to put my hand out there, jump in passing lanes, go up for two hands for rebounds,” Sestina said on Saturday evening.
To close out the team’s trip to Las Vegas, though, Sestina put forth his best performance as a Wildcat, draining five 3-pointers en route to a season-high 17 points to go with four rebounds and one assist. His five makes from deep also marked the most this season by a Wildcat and tied Sestina’s career-high of five threes, previously for Bucknell vs. Boston University on Jan. 5, 2019.
“I talked with our coaching staff, and they were like, “Listen, you need to just forget about it. Don’t think about it,”‘ Sestina said after his breakout performance. “I talked to our trainer Geoff [Staton], and he said the same thing, “Go out and play, don’t think about it.” I tried doing that today, diving on the floor, not really thinking about it. Today was just a toughness thing, we knew they were going to be physical, the Big 10 is known for that. I played Ohio State last year [at Bucknell], they were physical, so I knew that coming in. I was just trying to do the same thing tonight.”
Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans said his time on the floor was a “big deal” for the Wildcats and that the team needs his production and leadership on a nightly basis.
“Nate’s presence on the floor, it was a big deal tonight,” he said. “He knocked down some big threes that we needed, it got other guys hitting shots. He’s a vocal leader at all times, on and off the court, and that’s what we need.”
As for the opposition, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said they spent their entire halftime coming up with a game plan to slow Sestina – who had 11 points and three 3-pointers at the break – down.
“I think Sestina gives them, obviously — he was difficult for us,” Holtmann said. “We were — at halftime, we had our entire halftime was consumed with how are we going to guard his ball screens. And we talked about a few different things from switching to full rotating. I think he’s important for them.”
OSU star forward Kaleb Wesson felt Sestina was a “boost” off the Kentucky bench, while forward Kyle Young added that they knew going into the game that the Bucknell graduate transfer was a scoring threat.
“He made an impact coming off the bench, scoring 17 points,” Wesson said. “When you have a guy like that on your team, that’s good for your team, having a boost like that off the bench.”
“He’s a great player,” Young added. “We’ve played him previously, so we knew what his game was about. We knew he’s a player who made big shots.
After watching him in practice after he recovered from his fractured wrist, John Calipari said that he put in specific plays for Sestina – just as he did with former Wildcat forward Derek Willis – to get him some open looks on the perimeter.
“We spent two days just like one of the things I said, Nate, what were we running for you to get you threes? And then we put in some stuff and what they did after he banged a couple.”
To put it simply, he was thankful he did, because the Wildcats would have been in a world of hurt without his scoring effort on Saturday evening.
“Thank God we had Nate,” Calipari said.