After more than two decades as an also-ran, the Pusan American Panthers boys basketball team is finally enjoying the status of a contender.

The Panthers, who improved to 14-1 in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference with two victories at home this weekend, are 21-4 overall, their best record since winning the Far East Class A tournament in 1983.

No wonder third-year coach Phillip Loyd is smiling.

“When I got the job, I issued a challenge to the guys, made a promise to them that if they learned the game of basketball and went into every game giving our all, then we could become a good team,” Loyd said after Saturday’s 68-33 victory over Korea Kent Foreign.

The challenge, Loyd said, was to instill a reputation as being the type of team “that when people play us, they have to worry about us.”

Leading the Panthers are a group of players who understand their roles.

Behind the scoring of James Edwards and Synge O’Leary, the rebounding of David Ludwig and Kuba Niemaszek and the playmaking of point guard Moses Joh, the Panthers have proven their worth against high school and military competition.

“James is probably one of the fastest and most explosive players we have. He’s seen more box-and-one [defenses] than anybody and he’s [scoring in] double-figures in every game,” Loyd said. “Moses is what you want out of a playmaker. He runs the team like you want a point guard to run the team.”

Pusan won the title in Camp Hialeah’s post company-level tournament in late December. Its only loss to a high school team was 71-45 to two-time Far East Class AA Tournament champion Seoul American (13-0 in KAIAC) at home on Jan. 7.

The Panthers are experiencing quite a turnaround for a team that has gone 18-30 the past two seasons and placed sixth and fifth in the past two Class A tournaments.

“There’s no magic. They’re two years older and two years wiser. To a man, they’re just better basketball players,” Loyd said, heaping much credit upon his seniors. “I don’t think we could have been there without them.”

Loyd has reason to be optimistic heading into the Class A tournament Feb. 21-25 at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.

“I think we present a legitimate challenge at Iwakuni,” he said. “We present problems for other teams. I think we can be at center court.”

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