Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
Bijan Cortez puts victory, bigger season on Sooners' table
He only played 17 minutes, but the Kingfisher freshman stole Sooners a victory over 11th-ranked Cyclones
NORMAN — You can go years without seeing it, but every once in a while it happens and a team comes of age right before your eyes.
More rare, however, is what happened early Saturday evening inside Lloyd Noble Center, where the Sooners indeed appeared to graduate to a new level, knocking off Iowa State 79-66, and did it on the back of the simultaneous apparent coming of age of a freshman point guard, Bijan Cortes, who looks a lot like the great Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, yet played like the next coming of the great Jason Kidd, way back at Cal, where he was a must-see collegiate magician.
Cortes finished with only four points and five assists and, though such numbers may seem to make the rest of this sentence impossible, he was the best player on the court and the biggest reason Oklahoma handed Iowa State its second loss of the season.
He was the catalyst, the player his team would have lost without.
Want a stat, here’s a stat:
Cortes played just 17 minutes, or 7.1 more than he averaged entering Saturday, yet in those 17 minutes his team outscored the Cyclones by 20 points, giving him the game’s best plus-minus, six better than Jacob Groves, whose 14 over 10 minutes had everything to do with Cortes, who assisted on three of his four buckets.
OU had played quite well to come back from 10 points down with 14:13 remaining to find itself deadlocked 59-59 with 7:27 remaining.
Cortez, who assisted on the basket that made it a one-possession game, finding Groves to pull OU within 57-54, was about to go to work all over again.
He assisted on the Sooners’ next two baskets, each to Groves, and OU was on top 63-61.
Groves’ second hoop of the pair was the beginning of a 14-0 run and an 18-5 clip to end the game that Cortes was all over, too.
He scored OU’s next basket himself, his first, then scored the one that put the Sooners on top 71-61 three possessions later.
Two possessions after that, he assisted Jalen Hill, who made it 75-61, thereby ending all drama with 1:25 remaining.
Every one of Cortes’ assists made the shot, not the other way around, while both of his baskets were unassisted, all him.
“He is not scared,” Groves said.
Until Cortes fired, to want the Sooners to pull it out over the 11th-ranked Cyclones was to wait and hope and root for Elijah Harkless or Umoja Gibson to make it happen.
Tanner Groves entered leading OU in both scoring and rebounding, at 14.2 and 6, good numbers, but watching coach Porter Moser’s team play is to figure those averages may stay put but are unlikely to grow, and if OU can develop a go-to player — Harkless or Gibson — a bigger season gets put on the table.
Instead, Cortes put it on the table with a few amazing minutes, minutes no Sooner had offered previously and, because he’s a facilitator, perhaps he can make everybody a little better and OU can do great things that way.
“Our bench was crucial,” Moser said.
It was, but that was all about the Kingfisher freshman who has still not scored more than six points in a game, but took over a game against one of the nation’s best teams.
Did he feel it?
Were there moments Cortes had to compose himself in the middle of it, just to not lose his mind because it was all happening … now?
“Yeah,” he said, “for sure.”
This story would be better if he’d said more than that but he didn’t really. Perhaps he’ll go deeper later.
Just his second semester on campus, he has all the time in the world.
Because of him, the Sooners are 12-3. Because of him, they’re right on time in conference play, 2-1 with no home-court losses.
Because of him, the good look OU offered four days earlier at Baylor, a well-played 10-point loss to the nation’s No. 1 team is not a one-off that doesn’t matter.
The Sooners proved they could play with an absolute heavyweight in Waco, and have now returned to Norman and knocked off, perhaps, a top-10 program.
The season will tell us.
It wasn’t all Cortes.
For 23 minutes, he wasn’t even on the court. Others put the game on the table for the taking, he took it.
The plan wasn’t to leave him on the court for the last 9 1/2 minutes, but Moser couldn’t take him off it.
It’s just one day.
Just one game.
Also, sometimes that’s all it takes for everything to change, everything to speed up, to catch lightning in a bottle and keep it.
Saturday was a terrific day for Sooner basketball.