Kentucky coach John Calipari recently recommended the book 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins to forward Nate Sestina and on Tuesday night, Sestina displayed 27 minutes of toughness in Big Blue’s 79-76 victory over LSU to maintain the top spot in the SEC title race with five games remaining.
“It’s a big-time exhale,” Sestina said on his 11-point, eight-rebound performance that saw him cash home three of his four 3-point attempts on a night where Kentucky shot a blistering 73.9 percent from the field in the second half after missing 26 of their first 38 shots.
“It’s been frustrating because I haven’t been able to do anything defensively either. For me, it’s not just about trying to get a bucket or anything like that. I gotta do something defensively to help my team and I had been struggling with that as well. Tonight, everything kinda came to fruition.”
Through 20 minutes, Kentucky held a 29-28 advantage despite shooting a woeful 31.6 percent from the field against the Tigers. Those woes included Sestina, who missed four of his first five shots, but pulled down five rebounds and was a game-high +6 in the plus-minus department, finishing at +15 to lead the field. Sestina stepping up to play crucial minutes was massive, as EJ Montgomery picked up two early fouls and his third just 45 seconds into the second half.
“He’s got like, buzzard luck,” Calipari said on Sestina after the win. “(He) can’t find anything to eat and nothing will die. I told him I’ve been praying for him. I just wanted him to break through. You want all of these kids to play well.”
Sestina’s breakthrough performance on the heels of recent breakouts from EJ Montgomery and Johnny Juzang against Mississippi State and Tennessee respectively was more about just making shots in the second half. It was about the effort Sestina gave on both ends of the floor that made the difference in his game.
Sestina found ways to make an impact defensively just like he wanted
Kentucky was -12 on the glass after giving up 45 total rebounds against LSU and still found a way to win a tough game on the road late in the season. That probably didn’t feel possible back in December, but obviously, this team isn’t that team and this five-game win streak is displaying why they aren’t.
Kentucky doesn’t beat LSU without their usual suspects, but they certainly don’t win without the play of Nate Sestina last night.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
On top of the big plays, he did a lot of little things right, like here ... where he slid down, contested a shot and UK got a layup on the other end. pic.twitter.com/GkZhWydtJ3
In a game where Kentucky had to battle against one of the nation’s most efficient offenses and the second-best offensive rebounding team in the SEC and 24th in the entire country, Sestina worked his tail off at the rim along with Nick Richards, who finished with six blocks and it felt like 12 at the end of the game.
On this possession, conference player of the year candidate Skylar Mays delivered a beautiful no-look feed, but Sestina slid down to contest the shot and start a Kentucky break, which was a common trend on Tuesday.
It felt like when Sestina was able to make some defensive plays at the rim, it sparked the Kentucky transition game a few times, like here. (Maxey’s so good in the open floor.) pic.twitter.com/4A8VUErwNY— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
Here’s another possession where Sestina makes a contest at the basket (and actually gets the block this time) and it starts a Kentucky transition push where Tyrese Maxey goes coast-to-coast for the bucket, plus the foul.
Once again, Sestina battles at the rim defensively and it sparks another Kentucky break. (They’re probably should’ve been a foul here, but this is what it was like at the basket all night.) pic.twitter.com/ReL9qEytwb— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
In the interest of fairness, there probably should’ve been a foul called here on either Richards or Sestina, but the effort shouldn’t go unnoted from either guy. LSU was relentless to the tone of 23 offensive rebounds against the Cats, but Sestina comes down with the miss and immediately finds Maxey again to spark a break that ends with points on the other end.
You don’t have to make every shot to help out offensively
Sestina had four offensive rebounds out of the eight he racked up against the Tigers and two of those four led to open looks from 3-point land. (If one more would’ve counted because of a shot clock violation, it would’ve been three out of the four.)
Another extra possession for Kentucky leads to an Immanuel Quickley trey from the right corner off Sestina’s OREB. Good ball movement from Big Blue. pic.twitter.com/kZkD3k8wHp— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
Sestina made two great plays on this possession: 1) he grabs the miss to extend the possession and 2) he makes a great decision to quickly kick the ball out to Maxey.
Jay Bilas made the point on the broadcast that one of the best times to shoot a 3 is off an offensive rebound and here, he was correct. Maxey penetrates, kicks back out to Ashton Hagans, and as Hagans drives the lane, Immanuel Quickley kept clapping his hands to signify how open he was. Hagans kicks to the corner and Quickley drains the open 3.
Another Sestina offensive board, another kickout that leads to a Kentucky triple. pic.twitter.com/ecOXuVR8Dh— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
Again, Sestina grabs a Kentucky miss and makes the quick kickout pass, while it’s Quickley this time that finds an open Hagans, who swishes the triple at the top of the key to give Kentucky their one-point halftime lead.
Even on the plays that didn’t count, Sestina made the effort plays that mattered.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
This may have been an early daggerish-type of shot had it counted and pushed Kentucky’s lead to nine with just under 10 minutes to play before their big push to get the lead all the way to 15. pic.twitter.com/zTx5rvMNi1
(I did correct myself in a later tweet that this shot would’ve pushed Kentucky’s lead to 10 points, not nine.)
This play summed up the night for Sestina and Quickley, while displaying how good Kentucky’s offense had it during the second half.
EJ Montgomery made a nice move into the lane for a left-handed hook, but completely missed the rim with the shot clock winding down. With the ball going out of bounds, Sestina lunges to save the ball and at the same time, delivers a pretty good pass to Quickley, who barely lets the ball touch his hands before firing a prayer that somehow went in, but after the shot clock expired.
Of course, it helps to make shots, too!
Kentucky seemingly goes 4-out with a late ball-screen from EJ Montgomery for Ashton Hagans. Hagans penetrates and delivers an absolute pearl to Sestina in the corner for 3 to steer clear of trouble. pic.twitter.com/HZJ7ahhBPm— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
The shot that got Sestina going in the second half may have come on the best play Hagans made all night before exiting early with a left thigh contusion.
Kentucky spreads it out with a late ball-screen where Hagans penetrates late in the clock. Hagans draws in a couple of defenders and fires a perfect wraparound pass to Sestina, who drains a wide-open look from the left corner for 3.
(Random fun fact: Kentucky made six of their seven triples in the second half from the left corner/left wing, which was right in front of Calipari and the Kentucky bench. That small thing might have made a difference in the Vanderbilt comeback, too.)
Kentucky shows some Spain action with a high Richards screen-and-roll with Quickley popping out up top, but Maxey makes the simple play to the left corner where Sestina cans another triple. pic.twitter.com/XqZKKDdAt8— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 19, 2020
At least on this possession, Sestina’s “buzzard luck” went away with the shooter’s roll. Kentucky, minus Hagans at this point, goes to the late-game Spain action that’s been working lately and Maxey makes a simple pass to Sestina again in the left corner for 3.
Kentucky shows a double drag setup in the half-court with Sestina and Richards up top for Maxey and as the play develops, Sestina pops out and almost gets a mini rub from Richards to free him up for another triple off a Maxey find, which felt like the dagger with 5:13 left and Kentucky up 15 and LSU coach Will Wade absolutely laying into his team as they came to the bench.
Sestina did have a couple costly turnovers with LSU pressing defensively that helped the Tigers stay in it, but without Sestina’s efforts, Kentucky doesn’t win this game. It was a performance that not only Sestina needed, but that his team needed in a tough environment against the most athletic team they’ll see the rest of the way.