After his team lost to Edmond Memorial High on Saturday, Norman North coach Kellen McCoy received a phone call. On the other end was Bijan Cortes, ringing with excitement like the Lloyd Noble Center crowd he’d just dialed up.
McCoy coached Oklahoma’s freshman guard for three years with Team Griffin, an Oklahoma-based AAU squad, and the two still share a special connection. Cortes phoned his former coach immediately following Oklahoma’s 79-66 (12-3, 2-1 Big 12) win over No. 11 Iowa State (13-2, 1-2) in which he helped hang up the Cyclones, scoring four points, passing for five assists and posting a team-high plus 20.
“He was hyped. He was very, very excited,” McCoy told The Daily after the game. “He talked about the energy in the gym and how great the fans were tonight. He talked about how much love he was getting and how he played.”
When Cortes entered the game with 9:30 remaining in the second half, each of the 8,142 fans in attendance were energized beyond return. Oklahoma City Thunder rookie sensation Josh Giddey and his manager Olgun Uluc were even in attendance Saturday and loved what they saw from the young Sooner.
Got to my first ever OU basketball game and my god this Bijan Cortes kid is just so much fun. I’d go to another game just to watch him again.— Olgun Uluc (@OlgunUluc) January 9, 2022
The Sooners bounced back from an 11-point deficit with 17:11 left in the game, largely due to the energy Cortes brought off the bench. The Kingfisher native dished his five assists in the last nine minutes and 11 seconds of the game.
Cortes entered the game in relief of redshirt senior guard Jordan Goldwire, who missed a jump shot that drew coach Porter Moser’s wrath. Moser ended up needing to leave Cortes in the game down the stretch due to his hot hand.
“It was going,” Moser said after the game. “Bijan was in a great rhythm. I kept on asking him (if he needed a break) because he was looking exhausted. I didn't want him going one or two minutes too long, because that's when sometimes you get a turnover. And he just kept on saying, ‘No, I'm fine. I'm fine.’ And so I just kind of rode it. Sometimes as a coach you’ve just got to feel it.
“And he was feeling it.”
While Cortes was making moves and taking numbers, Jared Reese and his team were on their way to Enid for the Wheat Capital Tournament championship game. Reese, who coached Cortes at Kingfisher High School, was intently watching the game on his phone from the team bus.
Reese and Cortes won Class 4A State Championships together and made the title game three straight years. Those feats vaulted Cortes, the No. 3 in-state recruit for the 2021 class, into Oklahoma high school lore.
“He can really create on the offensive end,” Reese told The Daily. “He did a good job of that today. Those passes seemed to fuel the crowd like a dunk would at times. … Just a great run they went on in the second half.”
“It’s really fun to play with him because if you’re open, he’s going to throw it to you. He never, even in high school, seemed to care if he scored.”
McCoy also recalled several games when Cortes took his play to another level late in a tight contest. During their AAU days, McCoy once benched Cortes due to his offensive struggles in the first half, but unsurprisingly, Cortes returned and embarrassed his defender in the second.
In the second half of Saturday’s contest, OU shot nearly 82 percent from the field, the best percentage it has recorded in any half this season. senior guard Umoja Gibson led the Sooners in scoring with 20 points, and he made all 10 of his free throws. Senior forward Tanner Groves added 16 points and six rebounds in the win.
Junior forward Jacob Groves also made an impact off the bench, scoring nine points, six of which were assisted by Cortes.
“It’s obviously so fun playing with a point guard like (Cortes) that sees the floor the way that he does and makes the passes he makes,” Jacob Groves said. “He’s not scared. As a freshman especially, he made some big-time plays today and that was awesome to see.”
Moser has been waiting for bench players to step up and take over games like Cortes did Saturday. Depth has been especially important with several players missing time due to health and safety protocols. Cortes missed OU’s contest against Kansas State on Jan. 1, but he hasn’t missed a beat since returning.
“In typical Bijan fashion, he’s just dropping dimes to people,” McCoy said. “So I’m very, very proud of him but not surprised.”