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

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

“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. “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 in front of the Black Bears’ bench. Ellis’ No. 40 is one of the six retired numbers on it. In Millan, Ellis sees a player whose No. 22 will someday join hers, Cindy Blodgett’s No. 14, Rachel Bouchard No. 43, Liz Coffin’s No. 44, Heather Ernest’s No. 11 and Jamie Cassidy’s No. 24.

Millan has seen the banner, and heard stories of those players. But she is genuinely surprised anyone would consider her among the best in the program’s history.

“Honestly, I never thought about that. I don’t know,” said Millan, a senior guard. “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.”

In Maine’s opener on Friday, Millan scored 37 points – a career-high and most points by a Maine player in 20 years – in a 69-56 win at Delaware.

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

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. Three years later, she has become 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.”

Millan is a versatile player who has improved each year. In her first three seasons, she 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.

While Millan will not catch Blodgett’s career scoring mark (3,005 points), two of Blodgett’s other school records are well within reach. Millan entered the season with 174 career 3-pointers, 45 shy of Blodgett’s mark of 219. She also is closing in on Blodgett’s career steals mark of 334. Millan has 252 steals, 92 of them last season.

“I think my freshman year I didn’t really know what I was able to do,” Millan said. “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.

“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 made me tough.”

That’s what truly makes Millan one of the Black Bears’ all-time greats. 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 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 3, 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 6-1. 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. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“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.”

Millan said her adjustment to American basketball came quicker than anticipated. Millan had to make changes 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.

What impresses Ellis is Millan’s on court demeanor. No matter the score or situation, Millan is always cool and unfazed, 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 a basketball robot. Ellis pointed to the emotion Millan showed cheering for her teammates late in last week’s exhibition win over McGill, a university based in Montreal. While on the bench, Millan was on her feet, waving a towel and cheering her teammates.

“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 in Santiago de Compostela, she doesn’t focus on the snow or the long winters. 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.”

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