University of Maine’s Blanca Millan is greeted by fans as she enters the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor prior to an Oct. 27 preseason game against Stonehill College. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

BANGOR — Emily Ellis sits in the Cross Insurance Center stands and watches the University of Maine women’s basketball team with a more nuanced eye than the casual fan. One of the top players in Maine women’s basketball history, Ellis watches Black Bear guard Blanca Millan, and hopes other fans see what she does.

“I wonder if they really understand what they’re watching. That girl is exceptional,” said Ellis, who starred for the Black Bears during the late 1980s and was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. “She operates at a speed that’s different … I’m just thrilled to sit in the stands and watch her.”

There’s a banner hanging above the corner of the court, near the basket at which the Black Bears shoot in the second half in front of their bench. Ellis’ No. 40 is one of the six retired numbers on that banner. Ellis is Black Bear royalty. When Ellis watches Millan play, she recognizes greatness. In Millan, Ellis sees a player whose No. 22 will someday join her, Cindy Blodgett (14), Rachel Bouchard (43), Liz Coffin (44), Heather Ernest (11), and Jamie Cassidy (24) as one of Maine’s retired numbers.

Millan has seen the banner, has heard stories of those players. Speaking after Maine’s recent exhibition game against McGill, Millan was genuinely surprised anybody would consider her in that class of player.

Twenty-two, up there? Are you sure?

University of Maine senior Blanca Millan dishes the ball off during an Oct. 27 preseason game against Stonehill College. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“Honestly, I never thought about that. I don’t know,” Millan said. “The people up there are really good players, the best that have been here. That’s really hard. If I’m honest, when I got here I had no idea. But once I was here, I really wanted to see how it was. I know the value of the women’s program here, so I definitely follow some of the big players, the older teams, that kind of stuff.”

Maine coach Amy Vachon played alongside Blodgett and Cassidy. She’s quick to rank Millan among the best in program history. Vachon compared Millan to Cassidy, her teammate at Maine in the late 1990s.

“When (Millan) leaves here, she’ll be one of the best for sure,” Vachon said. “She’s a gamer. Jamie was a gamer. Blanca is a gamer. When the bright lights come on, she’s ready to go. She can just do so many things. Jamie was kind of like that. Jamie could shoot the three at 6-4. She can score in a lot of different ways.”

Millan arrived in Orono in fall 2016, a shy kid from Santiago de Compostela, Spain, almost 3,000 miles from home and uncomfortable speaking English. In Maine’s season-opening 69-56 win at Delware, Millan scored 37 points — a career-high and most for a Black Bear in 20 years — on 11 for 19 shooting from the field. She also made 13 of 15 free throws, had two steals and grabbed four rebounds.

Millan is the best player in the America East Conference, happy to give interviews in her second language, and taking up all kinds of space in the Black Bears record book.

This is not at all what she expected from her college experience.

“I was so confused. I didn’t know I was going to get better, as I did. I didn’t know it was going to be so important for me. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was just excited to be able to come here and play basketball at the same time I was doing school,” Millan said. “I didn’t speak a lot of English, but I was also very shy, so I didn’t even try to get out of my comfort zone. Now I look back and I’m like, why did I do that? Because the experience of meeting new people, everyone is different. There are a lot of international people that have accents, too. Basketball is basketball. That’s the biggest thing I regret.”

Millan is a versatile player who has improved each season. In three seasons, Milan has scored 1,438 points, already ninth all-time in program history. If she continues to average at least 17 points per game, Millan will become the fifth Black Bear to score 2,000 points, joining Blodgett — who put the team career scoring record into almost untouchable range, orbiting above the rest with 3,005 points — Bouchard (2,405), Cassidy (2,380), and Coffin (2,153).

While Millan will not catch Blodgett’s career scoring mark without an otherwordly stretch of offense, two of Blodgett’s other school records are well within reach. Millan entered the season with 174 career 3-pointers made, just 45 shy of Blodgett’s mark of 219. Millan made 61 3-pointers last season. She also is closing in on Blodgett’s career steals mark of 334. Millan has 252 steals, leaving her 82 from Blodgett. Millan had 92 steals last season.

“I think my freshman year I didn’t really know what I was able to do. I had a really good player when I played with Sigi (Koizar, a Maine standout who was a senior when Millan was a freshman). I definitely learned a lot from her. I went from one player to having an important role on the team,” Millan said. “I would say every aspect in my offense got better, my footwork, my 3-point shot, having an aggressive mentality all the time. On defense, too. Guarding the best player on the other team for three years definitely makes me tough.”

 

DEFENSE, TOO

 

That’s what truly makes Millan one of the Black Bears’ all-time greats. Offensively gifted players come and go. Millan is just as dangerous at the other end of the court, where her size and quickness make her the best defender in the conference. Not only is Millan the reigning America East Player of the Year after leading Maine to a second consecutive conference title last March, she also earned America East Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“I’ve never played with a player who was our leading scorer and our best defender. Ever,” Vachon said. “The thing that separates her is she’s such a two-way player. She plays defense so hard. Offensively, she has a unique skill set. She’s hard to guard. She’s slippery. She can shoot the three, she can attack. She’s added a post up game to her game this year. I think that really is what separates her. She plays both sides of the ball at a really high level.”

Millan was 5-foot-11 in her rookie season at Maine. When she returned for her sophomore year, she had grown two inches to 6-foot-1. With the growth spurt came increased confidence, particularly in playing defense.

University of Maine forward Blanca Millan, right, pressures Stonehill’s Morgan O’Brien during an Oct. 27 preseason game in Bangor. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“She sprouted right up. She’s able to defend. Once she starts getting confidence in something … people started saying wow, you can really defend, and she took it to heart. She wanted to be the best defensive player she could be,” Vachon said. “There are times when she’s not focused on it, and you can see. She’s really a coachable kid, too, so you can get on her. She understands. She knows. When the switch is on, she’s special.”

It’s rare that switch is off. Millan’s defensive switch is usually left in the on position, like a teenager hadn’t bothered to shut it off when leaving the room. Vachon pointed to matchups the last two seasons against Harvard, when Millan defended guard Katie Benzan, the Crimson’s top scorer. Last season, Benzan averaged 14.3 points per game. With Millan defending her last Dec. 4, Benzan scored 10 on just 3 for 11 shooting from the field in Maine’s 67-60 win. In a Nov. 11, 2017 game, early in Millan’s sophomore season, Benzan made just 1 of 6 field goals and finished with four points in a 76-51 Black Bears win.

“She couldn’t get going, and it was Blanca,” Vachon said.

Then there’s former Binghamton star Imani Watkins.

“She has guarded me better than anyone I have ever played against in this conference,” Watkins said following a Jan. 6, 2018, game in which Binghamton took a 66-62 overtime win from Maine. Watkins, the America East Player of the Year in 2018, scored 23 points that day, but with Millan in her face throughout the game, Watkins was just 9 for 30 from the field, including 1 for 11 from 3-point range. “She is really long, aggressive and really smart,” Watkins said.

Nearly a month later, in the rematch at Binghamton, Millan held Watkins to 15 points on 5 for 18 shooting, 3 for 9 from three, in a 61-38 Maine win. Against everyone else that season, Watkins shot just over 38 percent, and 31 percent from 3-point range. Against Maine, against Millan, Watkins was 29 percent from the floor and 20 percent from behind the arc.

Millan said her adjustment to American basketball came quicker than she anticipated. Millan had to make adjustments to her defensive game. For example, hand checking is illegal in the NCAA game, but fine in Europe.

“She’s able to maneuver her body in ways and get steals and deflections. When she’s committed to it consistently, it’s fun to watch,” Vachon said.

 

TEAM PLAYER

 

What impresses Ellis, who tries not to miss any of Maine’s home games, is Millan’s on court demeanor. No matter the score or situation, Millan is always cool and unphased, Ellis said.

“She has no emotion. She never looks at the ref,” Ellis said. “You don’t see any of that on the court. It takes a real level of focus to be in the zone and excelling at that special level.”

That’s not to say Millan is some basketball robot. She’s not, and Ellis pointed to the emotion Millan showed cheering for her teammates late in last week’s exhibition win over McGill, a Canadian school from Montreal. When her seldom-used teammates scored, Millan was on her feet, waving a towel and leading the Black Bears in cheering her teammates from the bench.

“That reveals to me how solid that team is. That’s leadership,” Ellis said.

Along the lines of leadership comes dependability, and that describes Millan perfectly. In her first three seasons at Maine, Millan didn’t miss a start. Last season, she averaged more than 34 minutes per game. Six times, Millan played all 40 minutes, or in the case of an overtime win against Brown, all 45.

“I just do whatever I have to do so my team wins. I don’t even know how many minutes per game I play. I don’t really care as long as I do whatever I need to do for my teammates,” Millan said. “Sometimes I know because I’m tired, but it’s not what I think when I get out of the game.”

When Millan talks about the University of Maine with her friends back home in Santiago de Compostela, she doesn’t focus on the snow, or the darkness and cold that comes with a long Maine winter, or the state’s natural beauty. Millan describes Maine in terms of her team.

“I’ve been here for four years now, so it’s my second (home), you know? My second family is here. My teammates are my sisters. The coaching staff is really important to me, too,” Millan said. “That’s how I tell them. I always tell them, it’s the best four years of my life here.”

Last Sunday, the Black Bears hosted McGill in an exhibition game. Millan scored 19 points and had five steals,including a pair in the first two minutes of the third quarter. The game was a laid back tuneup for what the Black Bears expect to be a challenging regular season. Millan was ready to go.

Three years of experience told Ellis and any other fan paying close attention to expect nothing less.

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