Craig Harris/Macon County Times Macon County High sophomore Jalynn Gregory is a returning starter at point guard.

Craig Harris/Macon County Times

Macon County High sophomore Jalynn Gregory is a returning starter at point guard.

The Macon County High girls basketball program couldn't come much closer to winning a state championship than it did last season.

The Tigerettes are hoping to take the last step in that direction with four starters returning from last year's state runner-up squad.

"We're doing our best to try to keep them grounded," Macon County head coach Larry White said. "We're going to try to play the opponent that's in front of us. We're going to do our best to take every individual game … and that becomes the biggest game of the year. We know there's a bigger picture out there, but that picture is not going to get painted if we don't do the little things to get the color right."

The Tigerettes - who suffered a 64-62, overtime loss to Upperman in the state championship game - lost just one senior to graduation, center Kyndal Bullington.

"Last year, it was amazing how much better we got every practice," White said. "This bunch can still improve. They are not perfect."

Leading the list of returnees is Tennessee Sports Writers Association (TSWA) All-State selection Keeley Carter. Carter led the team in scoring (16.8 points per game), rebounding (7.7), assists (2.6) and steals (2.1), shooting 51 percent from the field, 35 percent from three-point range and 75 percent at the free-throw line.

She has scholarship offers from the University of Tennessee at Martin, Austin Peay State University, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Trevecca Nazarene University, and she has been recruited by Colgate (N.Y.) University, Middle Tennessee State University, Belmont University, Tennessee Tech University and Lipscomb University.

"She shoots the ball so much better behind the (three-point) arc," White said. "Another thing I see in her is making decisions transition-wise, when they double (team her), hitting the open player.

"There's no doubt in my mind … she's one of the top five guards in the state. At Belmont's elite camp, she was rated as the top guard there. She'll still be the first option on our most of our stuff. Everything has improved."

Sophomore point guard Jalynn Gregory also has a scholarship offer from UT-Martin, and she has also been recruited by Belmont, MTSU, Lipscomb and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Gregory averaged 11.9 points per game and made a team-leading 65 3-pointers last season.

"Jalynn Gregory is so much longer and quicker," White said. "She's shooting the ball so much better. Her defense can't be much better. She's grown. All summer, she's played on great AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams and played tons of games with them. She's had individual lessons with certain people. She has been to three of those elite camps. She's been to Middle (Tennessee), Belmont and UT-C. Where's she being recruited, I think it has raised her level of play. I think it motivates her. She'll do a lot more attacking the basket, and she finishes much better than she did."

Junior Jamie Ashburn and sophomore Abby Shoulders will be in the starting backcourt as well.

"Jamie Ashburn … the one thing that has been really good about Jamie is that she has stepped up and taken shots," White said. "Last year, she just didn't look to shoot the ball at all. She's the smartest player on our team. She doesn't mind telling one of the other players, 'Hey, we messed that up. You need to be here.' She's great about getting us matched up, like in transition. She's kind of a glue.

"(Abby) is like the energizer bunny. She's tenacious on defense. I would describe her as a really, really good on-the-ball defender. Something she's improved on is when she's off the ball, being in help (side defense). Her shooting has improved a lot. Her ball-handling skills are also so much better."

The fifth starter will either be junior guard McKaylee Mix or sophomore forward Marah King.

"Mix has really had a really good summer, and so did King," White said.

King is the team's tallest player at 5-foot-8.

"That is something to be concerned about," White said of the team's lack of size. "This summer, we handled all of that stuff really good.

"Our pressure defense is just better than it was, because we're older. We're a little bit quicker than we were. We've handled all of that stuff - the post (matchups) stuff - pretty well."

The team is expected to utilize a full-court press and play at a fast pace.

"I think that will be the key to our offense," White said. "We can do a good job in the halfcourt if we have to. Conditioning is a big deal with me. We're close to being where I want us to be right now.

"We plan to be high energy, high tempo. Getting up and down the floor will be a key."

Sophomore guards Emily Ashburn and Graci Scott could see action off of the bench, as could sophomore forward Taylor Ward.

According to White, Scott has made significant progress since last season.

"She has emerged and raised herself a little bit above," White said.

White has been pleased with the team chemistry.

"I've never coached a team that has any better chemistry than this one," White said. "They've played together all their lives. Their parents probably have something to do with that.

"On our team, with any one of them, if you asked if they (would rather) score 30 points or we win the game … they would all say, 'Win the game.' We've never had any problem with any of them."

Upperman was the top team in District 8-AA last season, but they lost Miss Basketball winner Akira Levy and second-leading scorer Riley Hurst.

"Upperman returns four girls that played," White said. "In my opinion, they'd be two (the second-best team in the district). York (Institute) would be three. York has two really good players (Harli Smith and Haylee Johnson).

"Upperman is going to get a lot better. They're well-coached. They still have a 47-game winning streak going."

White expects his squad to be challenged by its non-district schedule.

"The schedule will be the toughest schedule that any Macon County High Tigerettes team has ever played," White said. "The classic (event) at Lipscomb … we're playing Ensworth and Summit. Ensworth will be the No. 1-rated private team in the big (Division II) classification. We're going to Phoenix (for the Nike Tournament of Champions). In all probability, we're going to play four high-quality teams. Stone Memorial might be the best team we play all year.

"We think it'll make us a lot better. We may not go undefeated. The better the level of competition, the better chance we have to get good."

White points to some familiar powers to be among the top contenders in Class AA this season.

"Cumberland County (led by Class AA Miss Basketball finalist Gracie Dishman) will be good, and the region tournament will be at their high school," White said. "Westview is supposed to be good again too, but they're going to be an entirely different team. They don't have bigs (post players). From my understanding, they're going to rely on their perimeter game this year. East Nashville, we beat them twice (this summer), but they'll be good. Cheatham County will be good. They return four out of five starters."

Macon County opened the season with a Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association Hall of Champions game on Tuesday and will play another Hall of Champions contest against visiting Stone Memorial on Friday.

The Tigerettes begin district play on Nov. 30, hosting Smith County.