Three years ago, a buzzer-beater stopped the Jackson (Tennessee) UnderDawgs from advancing one step closer to The Basketball Tournament (TBT) championship.
A five-point advantage with 14 seconds left evaporated and the UnderDawgs fell one point short of victory. What made the loss especially painful was that a day earlier the No. 16-seeded UnderDawgs had stunned the crowd with an upset of Kentucky’s No. 1-seeded Bluegrass Boys.
Thinking back on that night — the defeat, the silent car ride from Chicago, the team’s group chat on how a loss like that can never happen again — small forward Antwan Long knew that game would be the one that got away. But the UnderDawgs vowed to return for a shot at a championship and the grand prize of $2 million.
The loss still haunts some of the UnderDawgs, but it also serves as fierce motivation for the 2019 squad going into TBT’s Championship Week, which kicks off Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
“We all agreed that we let that one slip by, so our focal point at this point is taking that experience and saying, ‘Look, whatever we do, we leave it all on the court.’ We won’t have no excuses or nothing to be looking back in regret with,” Long said.
Winning last weekend’s Memphis Regional was a confidence-booster. The team pulled off a 59-50 Round 1 win against Gael Force (St. Mary’s), and beat its last two opponents by a 19-point margin or higher.
It’s part of who the UnderDawgs are: a strong-willed group of men who, even in their lowest moments, will fight their way to a comeback. The team name fits perfectly, though it was chosen by happenstance.
After entering The Basketball Tournament — a 64-team, single-elimination that began in 2014 — members of the team joined a group chat to share name ideas, most of which were too generic. When “underdogs” was thrown out, the name stuck.
“After thinking about it, we knew coming into [the tournament,] that’s exactly what we were,” Long said. “On this type of stage, everybody was going to see us as the easy win. We spelled it a little different, though. Of course, everybody knows what an underdog is in sports, but we spelled it that way because we champion that role as having a team full of what we call dawgs. We’re not going to back down. We’re not going to come out there with fear in us. So, yeah, that name is twofold, but we take a lot of pride. We don’t mind being the underdogs.”
Another important factor was making Jackson, Tennessee, proud by adding the name of the city where most members of the team were born and raised. Team members agree that Jackson, located 70 miles east of Memphis, is often overlooked when it comes to scouting talent, lagging behind larger Tennessee cities such as Memphis and Nashville.
“If you look at the makeup of our team, 11 out of the 13 actually are from this city,” said Long, who played at Lambuth University. “This is not a Memphis or a Nashville. I think to do what we’re doing, you’ve got to take a step back and say, ‘How did this city produce guys that are capable of doing this?’ They’re out of this one city, the majority of them. They produce players that are competing against former NBA guys. Guys that actually do this for a living. That to me, when I think about our group of guys, that’s pretty impressive for us to be able to formulate within our own community a team of that caliber.”
Beyond location, there are quite a few identifiable differences between the UnderDawgs and other teams in the tournament. The tallest players on the team are 6-foot-6, while the shortest is 5-foot-4. The other TBT teams feature former college stars and NBA players and have a decided size advantage over the UnderDawgs.
“I don’t think some teams take us seriously,” point guard Jaylen Barford said. “When we played our first game against [Gael Force] St. Mary’s, I know one player kind of joked on us the whole time. I think I had to tell him to calm down a little bit. We are from Jackson. We don’t back down from nobody.”
Another distinction is that, unlike other teams, most of the UnderDawgs have never played on a professional level.
“I know a lot of people are thinking, ‘Who are these guys?’ but I think that’s what makes us the underdogs in every single match,” shooting guard Jewuan Long said. “I think even the teams that we go against, they probably look at us again with our size and then they look at the names on the roster and they’re like, ‘Yeah, if we play anybody, we gotta play these guys.’ I think that’s what makes us the underdogs and that’s definitely what fuels our motivation as well.”
And since the players don’t have the luxury of spending hours each day in conditioning, it’s been a task to balance full-time jobs and still find time to practice.
“We have maybe seven guys that’s in Jackson, so they get to play a lot, but everybody else is out of town, so it’s hard to get everybody in the same gym at the same time until we get to the game,” said Jewuan Long, who played college ball at Murray State. “We just have to have the right mindset once we get out there on the court, for the most part. Just play hard and once you get tired, raise your hand and come out. While you’re in the game, you’re going all out. You’re leaving everything out there on the court. We have the confidence that once we come out the game, we got somebody else right after us ready to give it all they got.”
Despite minor setbacks, the team’s chemistry remains strong — mainly because the UnderDawgs are composed of former high school rivals who have played both with and against each other for years. With half of the team coming from Liberty Tech and the other half from South Side High, there is a mutual understanding of strengths and weaknesses.
“I think we gel well together because [Liberty Tech] is a great defensive team and [South Side] is a great offensive team,” said Barford, who played at Arkansas. “So I think when we put that together, the leadership and different roles, different mentalities, it makes it fun. It doesn’t matter who we play. We’re just trying to play and trying to win.”
The UnderDawgs remain grateful for the opportunity to play the game they love for a city that they love, and loves them back. The outpouring of love and support from fans, and even Jackson’s mayor, has been overwhelming.
Doing #JacksonTN proud! Keep it up @UnderdawgsTBT https://t.co/QQ8AjQGZ3p
— Mayor Scott Conger (@MayorConger) July 30, 2019
“We are representing our beloved city of Jackson,” Jewuan Long said. “We have a lot of talent there and I don’t think honestly everybody in the city of Jackson actually realizes that potential that the city of Jackson has. Not just with sports, but all over the board. I think that this tournament is definitely helping the city of Jackson, one, come together, but also kind of realize the potential that we have in sports and life in general.”
This year, maybe the UnderDawgs will turn into Jackson’s very own Cinderella story.