ORONO – She was part of the Spanish trio last year, one of three freshmen that started the 2016-17 season opener for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.

Tres amigas.

“We were close,” Blanca Millán said.

But when five international players transferred after last season, Laia Sole and Naira Caceres were among them, leaving one Spaniard, Millán.

“It was really hard,” she said. “But I wanted them to be happy.”

She never considered leaving.

“I am really happy here,” Millán said. “It was a tough and hard season (last year), but I really love the people here. They treat me really, really well. Not only the coaching staff. My teammates are like my sisters.

“It feels like home. I’m growing as a person and as a player. I thought it was the best place to be, and I still think that.”

Millán is more than just a happy camper on the Maine roster. She is the Black Bears’ leader, a player her teammates will count on Saturday night, when Maine (23-9) plays No. 8 Texas (26-6) in Austin, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Blanca really emerged this year,” Maine Coach Amy Vachon said. “She’s been the catalyst for us, offensively and defensively.”

Offensively, the biggest hit Maine took after last year was not a transfer, but the graduation of MVP guard and leading scorer Sigi Koizar.

“She made everything easy for us,” Millán said. “Last year was my first. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

“Basically, it was playing defense and then, from the defense, try my best on offense. Then again, we had Sigi.”

Any offense Millán provided was a bonus. She was tall – 5-foot-11 last year and sprouted to 6-1 this season – and quick, with an instinct for the ball. She led the team with 61 steals last year, contributing 8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and an average of 27 minutes per game.

This year, Millán leads Maine with 17.8 points a game, and 97 steals. She’s also grabbing 5.2 rebounds and playing 35 minutes a game.

Millán cannot account for her growth spurt – “I really don’t know. I didn’t notice until I came back (to school).” – But her scoring came from a conscious effort.

“I knew because we lost Sigi, I was going to step up,” she said. “Sigi was scoring almost 20 points a game. I knew I had to take my team with me. I started working early in the year.”

She took 255 shots last year (making 43.5 percent of them, including 44 3-pointers). This year, Millán is 227 of 505 (44.9 percent) with 69 3-pointers. Among her improvements is the ability to release her shot as soon as she has the ball.

“Every time I touch the ball in practice, Coach (Vachon) is saying, ‘Shoot,’” Millán said.

Vachon points out that “anyone can step up” and score in any game. But the one constant has been Millán, scoring in double figures in 31 straight games.

In the America East championship game last Friday, Hartford focused on Millán, holding her to 1-of-5 shooting and four points in the first half. In the second half, Maine worked on getting Millán open, and she focused on scoring.

“I was thinking ‘shoot the ball,’” she said.

She did, especially with some quick turnaround jumpers. She hit 7 of 11 shots (two 3-pointers) in the second half, and finished with a game-high 22 points, in Maine’s 74-65 victory.

It put Maine in the NCAAs, which Millán knows will get the attention of her homeland.

“They don’t follow college basketball much,” said Millán, who is from Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. “But they do follow March Madness. It’s a big deal.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH