University of Maine women's basketball player Blanca Millan (22) gets into defensive position while guarding New Hampshire's Amanda Torres during their America East quarterfinal game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on March 6. Credit: Pete Warner

ORONO, Maine — When Blanca Millan was a baby, she was in the stands when her father, Carlos, played professional basketball games in their native Spain.

Her mother, Silvia Modia, also played basketball.

The influence on their daughter appears to have been considerable as Blanca Millan of the University of Maine recently was named the Player of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year in America East.

But Millan’s parents didn’t push her into their preferred sport. She was a swimmer before she started playing basketball.

“I knew they wanted me to play a sport but they didn’t tell me which one to play,” said Millan, who also played soccer and was a goal scorer.

“I liked swimming, but my swimming coach said, ‘You’re really tall. You should try basketball.’”

When she made the switch at age 7 or 8, Millan’s father was pleased and wound up playing an important role in her development.

During her first three years playing basketball, she was on predominantly boys teams. By age 12, Millan was committed.

“I really wanted to take [basketball] seriously. I wanted to go pro [someday],” she said.

It wasn’t an easy road to Orono.

Basketball is a popular sport for men in Spain but not so much for women, she explained.

“No one really cares about women’s basketball,” Millan said.

Her high school gym was often booked, which meant only two practices a week for a half-hour or an hour each day.

“So I had put in extra time with my dad and my coaches,” said Millan, who worked on her game during the summer with her father.

Her game developed and she earned spots on regional teams and, eventually, on age-group national teams. U.S. college recruiters took notice, including then-UMaine women’s head coach Richard Barron and assistant coach Amy Vachon.

“They were really interested in me. Coach Barron came to my home twice,” said Millan, who accepted UMaine’s scholarship offer.

She was attracted to UMaine’s academic reputation, the success of its international players and the small-town atmosphere.

Millan made a strong start, averaging 8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists as a freshman to earn a spot on the America East All-Rookie team.

But her first year in Orono was challenging.

“I was very shy. I didn’t talk to anybody, not even my teammates except Tanesha [Sutton]. My English wasn’t great,” Millan said.

She even contemplated returning home to Spain.

After her freshman season, four of her classmates transferred, including fellow Spaniards Laia Sole and Naira Caceres.

Amidst it all, Millan said she realized that her experience had been positive.

“I was very happy and [realized] that the coaches were helping me develop my game. So I came back to follow my dreams.”

Last season, Millan led UMaine to the America East championship and its first NCAA berth since 2004. The all-league first-team choice led America East in steals (3 per game) and was 13th in the nation with 99 steals.

She also was second in the conference at 17.5 points per game and averaged 5.1 rebounds. Millan was chosen the tournament Most Outstanding Player.

Her progression has continued during her junior season. Going into Friday’s 5 p.m. America East championship game in Bangor against Hartford, Millan is averaging a league-best 17.6 points along with 4.2 rebounds, 2.8 steals, 2 assists and 1.4 blocked shots.

The 6-foot-1 Millan achieved that improvement through setting goals.

“I knew I had to improve my footwork so I could be a more efficient 3-point shooter,” she said.

“I’ve also worked a lot on my dribbling.”

Millan’s defensive prowess stems from her long arms, anticipation and aggressive mentality in shutting down opponents’ best scorers.

“It’s fun to play against the best guard on the other team. It gives me energy,” she said.

Millan’s English has improved dramatically and as a result she is much more outgoing.

“It has been fun to see her confidence grow with each year,” Vachon said. “And her leadership has grown a lot.”

Graduate student Parise Rossignol said Millan’s increased confidence and her status as the league’s best player help her go into every game with an attack mentality.

“It’s not easy to do what we ask of her but she never complains, she embraces it and excels at it,” Vachon said.

Millan, a kinesiology and physical education major, ranks ninth on UMaine’s career scoring list with 1,415 points and her 246 steals have her within striking distance of Cindy Blodgett’s school-record 334.

She would love to have a pro basketball career and eventually become a physical therapist for a professional team.

She knows the Black Bears face a stiff challenge on Friday from Hartford, which dealt UMaine its only regular-season league loss.

“We know it’s going to be a tough game,” Millan said.