Nate Sestina glad to have another chance to play in Rupp Arena

Published 8:10 am Wednesday, July 3, 2024

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Nate Sestina is glad he’ll get a chance to play again in Rupp Arena with La Familia, Kentucky’s alumni team that will play The Basketball Tournament (TBT) in hopes of taking the $1 million prize that goes to the winning team.

Sestina was on Kentucky’s 2019-20 that lost its final home game to Tennessee in Rupp Arena but still won the Southeastern Conference championship. The Cats were seemingly poised to make a deep NCAA Tournament run when COVID canceled the tournament.

Sestina said he still thinks about what might have been and talks about that with former teammates Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley and others.

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“That’s always one of our topics of conversations.We were this close to something, I think, really, really special, and obviously something that the fans really wanted to see. To this day, I still think that we would have won a national championship,” Sestina said.

After playing four years at Bucknell, Sestina transferred to Kentucky for his graduate season. He played in 28 games, including seven starts, and averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and shot 40.7 percent from 3.

He’s played professional basketball overseas the last four years and says UK fans who watch his TBT play will see major differences in his game. He’s transitioned to the high tempo, fast paced pro game that relies on more 3’s.

“I’ve kind of gotten away from being big and clunky. I’ve tried to slim down a little bit, be quick and be able to shoot 3’s on the move. That’s kind of where the game is transitioning to,” Sestina said. “I promise I’m better on defense. I know everybody’s worried about that. I promise I am. I’ve kind of transitioned into playing smaller and playing in a more confined space in Europe in general.”

He said overseas play has been “super physical” and that forced him to adjust his play he hopes to showcase with La Familia.

“Hopefully I can come in and show off a little bit of athleticism, maybe get a fast break dunk. We got some guys that can facilitate the ball, so I’m excited,” Sestina, who recently signed a new two-year contract to play for Valencia of the Spanish Liga ACB, said.

Sestina’s teammates in TBT play will be former UK players Eric Bledsoe (2009-10), Daniel Orton (2009-10), Doron Lamb (2010-12), Marquis Teague (2011-12), Willie Cauley-Stein (2012-15), James Young (2013-14), Andrew Harrison (2013-15), Reid Travis (2018-19), Nate Sestina (2019-20), and Kellan Grady (2021-22).

He said he’s looking most forward to playing with Bledsoe and Cauley-Stein. He knows Travis, has worked out with Grady and played against Harrison.

“I am happy he (Harrison) is on my team. He put me in iso (isolation) and I think I fouled him. I was like, ‘Alright dude, I can’t let you get by me. This is kind of embarrassing,’” Sestina said.

Tyler Ulis, a former SEC Player/Defensive Player of the Year at UK, is La Familla’s coach.

“I think being coached by Tyler is one of the coolest things. Like that image of him just with the blood coming down his eye (against Louisville). I’m really excited about that,” Sestina said. “You couldn’t ask for a better guy (to coach). He’s a junkyard dog. That’s how he was as a player. I’m hoping he’s the same way as a coach.”

Sestina said the image of Ulis with that cut and bleeding against Louisville “encompasses what it means to play basketball at the University of Kentucky” and always will.

Sestina, 27, was an easy sell for team general manager Twany Beckham because his fiancé, Madison Lilley, is in Lexington. She was the nation’s most outstanding player when Kentucky won the national volleyball championship in 2021. Lilley played professionally overseas before returning to Kentucky as an assistant coach last season.

“I’m going to make sure that everybody knows Madison will be there (when La Familia plays July 19 in Rupp Arena),” he said. “If anything, I’m kind of living in Madison’s shadow. She’s really a rock star there.”

Sestina said they often go out to eat in Lexington but normally most people recognize her, not him.

“The little girls would kind of be whispering, ‘That’s Madison Lily.’ And I’m like, you’re really a rock star here,” he said. “But any opportunity I get to meet up with people … it’s always love from the fans. “I really, really appreciate that. That’s a big reason why we ended up staying there.”