The University of Maine women’s basketball team entered the season as the team to beat in America East. Nothing has changed in four months.

The Black Bears (22-7, 15-1) are seeded first in the America East playoffs, which begin Wednesday with quarterfinal games. Maine will play rival New Hampshire (6-23, 3-13) at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Last year, Maine won the America East playoffs – and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament – for the first time since 2004. This time around, the Black Bears will have home-court advantage for all league playoff games and they are welcoming the challenge.

“I don’t think being No. 1 puts any pressure on us,” said junior forward Blanca Millan. “It makes us excited, to be No. 1 back-to-back years. Last year we were underdogs (during the regular season), this year everyone wanted to beat us. We took care of business every day. It’s not pressure anymore.”

Millan was named America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday, just the fourth player in league history to win both awards in the same season. Millan, who led the league in scoring (17.6 points per game) and steals (2.8 per game), was one of several Black Bears honored.

Amy Vachon was named Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year. Senior guard Tanesha Sutton was selected to the first team along with Millan. Senior guard Parise Rossignol was named to the second team and sophomore point guard Dor Saar to the third team.

“I was really pleased with how the coaches recognized our kids and the years they had and how it was a team effort,” said Vachon. “I’ve heard several teams say we’re a hard team to guard because anyone can score.”

The Black Bears led America East in scoring (67.2 points), field-goal percentage (43 percent) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.44). They took more 3-pointers (715) and hit more 3-pointers (239) than anyone else, averaging a league-high 8.2 per game.

“Offensively we do a lot of good things,” said Vachon. “We share the ball. The kids love to play with each other. Defensively we haven’t put a full game together. But we’re on track to do that. This team has grown a lot.”

And in Millan, the Black Bears have a player who can take over a game at either end of the court. “By the time Blanca leaves Maine she will be one of the best to ever play here,” said Vachon. “There aren’t many players in the country who are asked to lead the team in scoring and guard the other team’s best player. She does that every night.”

Rossignol, the Van Buren native, is often guarded by Millan in practice.

“It’s very frustrating when she guards me,” said Rossignol. “I know how the other teams feel … When I found out (Millan had won her awards), I actually cried a little. If there was a teammate of the year award she’d win that too.”

Although Maine has beaten New Hampshire twice this year – 67-46 on Jan. 2 and 69-45 on Feb. 32 – the Black Bears won’t take the Wildcats lightly.

“We’re always focused,” said Vachon. “This team is really good about that … We know if we don’t play well we can get beat and not play in the NCAA tournament.”

Being at home, where Maine was 10-1 and averaged a league-high 1,700 fans, gives the Black Bears an emotional boost. From 1998-2016, the championships were held on designated campus sites. The last two years, the quarterfinals and semifinals were held at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena, with the championship game at the highest remaining seed. America East switched to the higher-seed format this year.

“The fans bring a lot of energy to the team,” said Millan. “And we don’t want to disappoint them, we want to do our best out there.”

“We love playing at home,” said Rossignol. “The energy the fans bring is huge. It makes a difference. It’s a game-changer.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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