By LARRY VAUGHT
LAS VEGAS — Kentucky didn’t roll the dice very well in Las Vegas this week.
Kentucky had chances Saturday against No. 5 Ohio State but familiar issues — trouble getting key stops and no inside scoring threat — doomed the Cats in the 71-65 loss much like they did in Wednesday’s 69-66 loss to Utah.
This time, though, Kentucky did fight a lot, lot harder than it probably has in any game since it beat Michigan State in early November. However, Ohio State got to the foul line 27 times to UK’s 13 after getting the Cats in early foul trouble and led most of the game.
Kentucky did hit seven 3-pointers — but five came from Nate Sestina. He was 5-for-8 from long range and had 17 points. However, the rest of the team was 2-for-15 after going just 2-for-17 against Utah Wednesday.
The Cats had the lead down to 55-54 after an Immanuel Quickley 3-pointer with 6:35 to play but the Buckeyes got two key blocks in the final minutes to stop the Cats’ surge.
The Buckeyes led the final 28 minutes no matter what Kentucky threw at them.
“We approached it with poise. We tried to get the best shot every possession,” Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson, who had 12 points and eight rebounds, said. “They try to pressure you (defensively) and get you out of what you are doing. We tried to stay poised and it worked for us.”
Ohio State coach Chris Holtman, a Kentucky native, said not to write off the Wildcats quite yet.
“They are going to have a great year. John’s teams always get better as the year goes on. They are going to have a great year,” Holtman said after his team’s third win over teams ranked in the top 10 when they played Ohio State.
Kentucky fans are wondering about that now that UK has lost consecutive games. However, Holtman says the return of Sestina changes UK a lot.
“Sestina was difficult for us. Our entire halftime was consumed with how to guard his ball screens. He is important for them. They will shoot it better moving forward. I think they are going to be fine. Obviously everybody points to (perimeter) shooting but I think that will be fine.”
So does Kentucky coach John Calipari. He’s confident the shots will eventually drop and was happy with the fight his team did show but also hopes it learned it has to do more.
“Ohio State played their butts off today. They played,” Calipari said.
It’s hard to play against these teams that are trying to kill you.”
Kentucky got a huge — and needed — lift from Sestina in the first half after Nick Richards got two fouls in the first three minutes (he finished the game with just two points and no rebounds and played only 12 minutes). Sestina, who played limited minutes in Wednesday’s loss to Utah in his first game back since breaking his wrist in November, had 11 points — he was 3-for-6 from 3-point range — and three rebounds — all on the offensive end.
Calipari had been hoping a healthy Sestina would help UK’s 3-point shooting but the rest of the team was 0-for-7 in the first half following the 2-for-17 3-point effort against Utah. And it got no better the second half.
Kentucky had six fouls and four turnovers in the first 3 1/2 minutes but showed much more fight than it had against Utah thanks in part to Hagans’ 11 points and three assists to go along with Sestina’s spark. Hagans finished with 14 points, nine assists and three steals.
Freshman Tyrese Maxey had 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal but was just 1-for-6 from 3-point range. He also had three turnovers — all charges.
Still, Holtman cautioned that Calipari’s track record for having teams ready to play in March should not be forgotten.
“They (Kentucky) had great competitive spirit and we certainly expected they were going to come out (that way after the loss to Utah) … and they did,” Holtman said. “They will be fine.”
Calipari said the comeback after being 17 down against Utah and the entire game Saturday against Utah were “a good sign” for Kentucky.
“Now we just have to clean this stuff up,” Calipari said.