University of Maine standout guard Blanca Millan surveys the court during a game against UMass-Lowell earlier this season in Orono. Photo provided by University of Maine athletics

In a basketball season full of inconsistency, Blanca Millan is consistent. Every time the University of Maine women’s basketball team takes the court, Millan can be counted on to do Millan things. In maybe the least surprising conference player of the year vote in the nation, last week Millan was named the America East Player of the Year, and the America East Defensive Player of the Year. Millan also won both honors in 2019, her last healthy season, and became the first player to win both America East awards twice.

Millan averages 21.7 points per game, a career high and 17th-best in the nation. Her field goal percentage is 47.9 percent, also a career high. The 6-foot-1 guard averages 7.4 rebounds per game, and if you haven’t spotted the trend, that’s also a career high. Millan is among the NCAA’s leaders in steals with 53 (almost three per game). She leads America East in eight categories,

Millan is having the best season of an outstanding career, and her play is a big reason the Black Bears are 16-2 and the top seed in the conference tournament. Maine hosts Albany in the America East semifinals 1 p.m., Sunday.

 

Millan is showing no lingering effects from the torn ACL she suffered in the sixth game of the 2019-20 season — a loss to Arizona State in the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament.

“That’s in the past. Since I’ve been back, I know I’m fully ready. It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t think about it at all,” Millan, a native of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, said of the injury in a Zoom meeting with media Tuesday.

When she saw her senior season end with a torn knee that late November day in 2019, there was a chance it was the last play of Millan’s Black Bear career. There was no guarantee she was going to completely recover, and certainly no guarantee Millan was going to return to Maine if she did. Maine head coach Amy Vachon remembered sitting with Millan the day after the injury, after the torn ACL diagnosis was confirmed. They discussed the star player’s potential options.

“I sat with her and I said to her, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for you. If it’s best for you to come back for a fifth year, then we’re going to do that. If it’s best for you to go try and play somewhere else or go play pro, then I will support you doing that,”” Vachon said. “That’s hard for me to say. She’s one of the best players ever to play at Maine, but she’s given everything to us. And she had given everything to us at that point. We stayed in contact and talked a lot about it. We came to a mutual decision, but it was really her. I mean, I wasn’t arguing it, but it was her who came to the decision that it was going to be best for me to stay and rehab.”

The first question on Millan’s mind wasn’t where she would play basketball in 2020-21, but would she be able?

“It was a hard decision. I just didn’t know. In the moment, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to play basketball again. That was going through my mind. So it was not about leaving Maine, it was just about playing basketball,” Millan said. “Once I saw I was making great progress, I was feeling pretty good, I had no doubt. Coach Amy obviously made it very easy for me, and my family said this was the place where everything happened, so I should definitely give it a chance. It wasn’t hard to make the decision.”

Millan will play pro basketball next season, either in the WNBA or in Europe. Getting in a strong full season on her reconstructed knee is key to showing professional teams she is 100 percent recovered. Working with team trainer Hanna Yeh, with whom Millan already had a relationship, was key to the process. That was an important piece of fighting the mental fatigue that comes with rehab, Millan said.

“I knew what was waiting for me. It was a routine. I had to do those exercises every single day in order to get better. That was really hard, especially because I wasn’t used to having to have a three-hour rehab session every single day,” Millan said. “I think the physical part wasn’t bad. I’m an athlete. I was used to doing physical activity anyway. The mental part was the hardest part.”

Added Vachon: “I think watching our team play last year as well, seeing how well they did and how they improved, helped as well. She was like, I can come back and we can be pretty good… If (leaving) would have been what was best for her, I would’ve fully supported it. But I do think, and I’m not just saying this because she’s doing great, it was the best decision for her for sure.”

This season, the Black Bears have utilized Millan in different ways offensively, often exploiting the size advantage she has over defenders.

“I wanted to improve my game as much as I could. I added some little things I knew was going to make me a better player. Crashing the boards was something we’ve been trying since last year, but I put a special focus on it this year. I’m a big guard, you know, and usually I’m guarded by a smaller person. In the offseason a lot on cutting hard and posting up,” Millan said.

Watching Millan grow as a person at Maine has been as important as watching her development as a basketball player, Vachon said.

University of Maine standout guard Blanca Millan runs up the court during a game against UMass-Lowell earlier this season in Orono. Photo provided by University of Maine athletics

“Her confidence level, not only with her basketball, but as a person, she’s grown so much. She’s grown into being a great student. When she was here her freshman year, she just wanted to play basketball. She’s grown into understanding, you know what? I want to be the best I can at everything. She got over a 3.5 (grade point average) in the last five, six semesters. As a leader, I mean the kid, when she speaks, everyone listens. She’s just grown in every single aspect you can think of, and it’s been fun to watch,” Vachon said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA is giving every player an extra year of eligibility. Maine forward Maeve Carroll has announced she’ll return for a fifth year. Millan said she’ll consider a sixth season in Orono when this season is complete. Vachon said she’s 99.9 percent sure Millan and the other seniors will move on and begin the next phase of their lives.

Once it was apparent the pandemic would not cancel the season, the Black Bears set a series of goals. The first was to win the America East regular-season title. Next was to win the conference tournament and its prize, the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Once there, Maine wants to reach the Sweet 16. That would be the deepest tournament run by a Maine team, which has advanced to the second round once, in 1999. With five seniors, including Millan and forward Fanny Wadling, who also returned for a fifth season after missing last season with an injury, it’s not a far-fetched goal.

There will be time later for Millan and her teammates to look back at individual accomplishments. Now, there is a game against Albany.

“The most important part of the season, we haven’t reached that yet. I know when the season is over, I’m going to look back at it and be very proud of myself and my team,” Millan said. “We just want to focus on the playoffs and do as best as we can and make some history.”

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