Sestina Delivers on Belief of Teammates, Coaches at LSU
Nate Sestina had been within a single solid scoring night of reaching 1,000 points for his career for the entire month of February, but the milestone just kept escaping him.
His last game – which included a pair of missed free throws sitting at 999 – left him a single point shy.
Against LSU, Sestina reached the millennium mark and then some.
“I don’t know what it was, but my teammates and my coaches have just been on my case about trusting my training and believing in myself and knowing that everything’s going to pay off,” Sestina said.
It paid off in a big way Tuesday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
A layup late in the first half finally got him there, so he could move on to more important matters: helping his team to a huge victory. In the second half, Sestina – who scored 11 points on the night – headlined a 3-point shooting barrage that propelled the No. 10/10 Wildcats (21-5, 11-2 Southeastern Conference) to yet another quality road win over LSU (18-8, 9-4 SEC), 79-76.
“When Nate was hitting shots, I think I was more proud of him than he was,” said Immanuel Quickley, who had 21 points and six assists. “I was running down the court just screaming like a little kid.”
Quickley had plenty of opportunities to celebrate, with Sestina making all three of his second-half 3-point attempts as Kentucky shot 7 of 8 from beyond the arc. That came on the heels of a first half that saw UK shoot 2 of 10 from 3 and 12 of 38 (31.6%) from the field, leaving John Calipari to marvel at the fact that the Wildcats somehow held a one-point halftime lead in a game crucial to the race for the SEC regular-season championship.
“Coach talked to me today in a huddle and said, ‘You’re averaging 60 makes in our (five-minute) shooting drill, so shoot the ball,’ ” Sestina said. “To hear somebody like that tell you to shoot the ball and they’re confident enough in you for you to make it is big.”
Sestina might not have made a 3-pointer all month, but the confidence his teammates and coaches had him in never wavered. There’s Coach Cal of course, who recommended the book 10-Minute Toughness, a mental training program that equipped Sestina with breathing exercises and techniques to visualize success.
“He’s a great kid,” Calipari said. “I’ve been telling him, he’s got buzzard luck. 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 these kids to play well.”
Then there’s Quickley, Sestina’s roommate on the road.
“He’s been a big help and he actually sent me a thing last night about Kobe Bryant talking about mental toughness and just being in the right spot at the right time and trusting that it’s going to go in,” Sestina said. “And if you miss it, then you’re going to make the next one. So I missed that one in the first half really far right from 3. In my head, I was like, ‘All right, next one’s in.’ Shot the next one and it went in; next one, it went in; next one, it went in.”
And the last of Sestina’s supporters to uplift him before his breakout effort was assistant coach Tony Barbee.
“I always bump into him when I’m leaving the locker room and he said, ‘Don’t let that be the last time you hit somebody until that buzzer rings,’ ” Sestina said. “I kind of took that to heart, made it a point of emphasis for me to make sure I’m in the right spots, hitting guys on rebounds and just going after the ball.”
With Barbee’s words in mind, Sestina attacked the glass all night against one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams. He led UK in rebounding with eight, his most in a game since November.
That, as much as anything, is what had Sestina breathing a sigh of relief postgame.
“It’s a big-time exhale,” said Sestina, who also had a block and a steal. “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 and I had been struggling with that as well. Tonight, it kind of came to fruition.”
Sestina had begun to wear his struggles, which only served to make them worse.
“I’m supposed to be a senior leader and I’ve been playing like I was a freshman or I was a high school player,” Sestina said.
Never fully back to himself after a wrist injury forced him to miss three games in November, Sestina had faded into the background as his team rounded into form.
“I’m hard on myself because I want to be great,” Sestina said. “I want to be good at the things I practice so much. When you do these things and you’re not doing them well, it’s frustrating, especially for us as athletes.”
Even though UK had won 12 of 14 entering Tuesday, everyone knew Kentucky – especially since the Cats are down to eight active scholarship players – would have to have Sestina at his best to reach its potential. He couldn’t be happier to now be trending in that direction.
“That’s the kind of guy I need to be for this team to be successful,” Sestina said. “Tonight was a really good stride moving forward to do that.”