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Sestina giving Wildcats a big lift off the bench

By Keith Taylor

Kentucky Today

LEXINGTON —Nate Sestina wants to finish the season on a strong note.

The Kentucky senior forward will be honored prior to the Wildcats’ home finale against Tennessee set for Tuesday night at Rupp Arena and has described his lone season in Lexington as a “rollercoaster.”

“I’ve had seasons like this, you start out well or you start out poorly and finish strong,” he said. “The best thing for me is just trying to finish out the season strong and finish the regular season strong and out on top and that’s what we’re trying to do. Of course, I’m trying to do the same thing. I had a little bit of a slump in January and I’m just trying to finish out this season strong.”

Sestina led Kentucky in rebounding in wins over Michigan State and Eastern Kentucky and yanked down a season-high 12 boards in a win over Utah Valley State. He scored a season-high 17 points in a 71-65 loss to Ohio State on Dec. 21, but cooled off once conference play began and didn’t score in three games in February.

Despite the slump, Sestina has been giving the Wildcats a much-needed lift off the bench, especially during two of the past four games. He scored 11 points in a 79-76 win at LSU on Feb. 18 and matched that total in Saturday’s 73-66 triumph over the Tigers.

Sestina provided a boost for Kentucky with nine points in the first half against Auburn, while filling in for Nick Richards who played just four minutes in the opening half because of foul trouble.

“I just want to do something for us,” Sestina said. “I didn’t do a whole lot down at Auburn, so for us, whether I was going to put the ball into the hoop, defend or try to stay out of foul trouble which I did until the second half, but whatever I needed to do to help us out.”

In addition to Sestina’s contributions, it took a team effort for the Wildcats to hold off the gritty Tigers in a win that gave Kentucky its 49th Southeastern Conference title and top seed for the upcoming conference tournament.

“It just shows what kind of team we are,” Sestina said. “The guys stepped up today and coach needed that from us — me, E (Ej Montgomery), Nick (Richards), Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Johnny (Juzang). He’s just been talking to us about stepping up, and how we can’t just rely on Tyrese (Maxey), Ashton (Hagans), and Immanuel to score all of our points and get stops for us, so it was big for us.”

Sestina added that Saturday’s season-high crowd played a role in the comeback victory.

“It was a big crowd,” he said. “It was awesome. It’s a big-time crowd for us, gets us going and gets the momentum. We hit a couple of shots and the crowds behind you, we had four minutes left and a little bit of a lead, the crowd started getting into it a little bit. They missed a couple of shots and we got a couple more possessions and we kind of just put a fork in them.”

Auburn, which defeated the Wildcats 75-66 earlier this month, is the type of team Sestina said Kentucky will face in the Big Dance and gives the Wildcats confidence going into the final week of the regular season. Following the home finale Tuesday, Kentucky closes out the schedule at Florida Saturday.

“This is a team we might face in March or a team like this that were going to face in March,” Sestina said. “That’s what we’re playing for and a team like this today at home towards the end of the season to get a win like this is huge for us and carries a lot of momentum going into the next game and the next two.”

Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, Tuesday, 9 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.