Blanca Millan, pictured during a game last season, has been the catalyst for a University of Maine defense that has paved the way for four straight America East victories. The Black Bears have limited opponents to 45.35 points per game during the run. Credit: BDN File

BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine women’s basketball team devotes a lot of practice time to defense and it has paid dividends of late.

UMaine has won four straight America East games and has limited its opponents to 45.35 points per game during the run.

Fort the season, UMaine ranks 22nd in Division I in scoring defense, allowing 56.2 points per contest.

“We work on defense every single day,” said UMaine interim head coach Amy Vachon. “We have a really smart group. They know that when someone scores on us, it’s usually the result of a breakdown and whoever had the breakdown is the first one to say ‘This is what happened. It’s my (fault).”

UMaine’s 69-36 victory over the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Sunday has lowered its America East scoring defense number to a league-low 52.6.

“We have a lot of ball pressure and we communicate really well,” said sophomore Blanca Millan.

The 6-foot-1 guard is the key to the Black Bears’ defensive effort, according to UMBC head coach Phil Stern.

“She’s tough. She guards everyone’s best player and she does a real good job taking away your first option,” said Stern.

The long-armed Millan is tied for 22nd in the country with 59 steals in 21 games (2.8 spg).

During their winning streak, the Black Bears have forced 71 turnovers while committing only 31. That has been a primary reason behind UMaine’s decided edge in shot attempts (239-173).

Junior guard Tanesha Sutton said the team is cognizant of help defense.

“That’s very important for us. In case one of your teammates gets beat, you have to be on a rail (and ready to slide over and help),” explained Sutton.

“They’re a big, aggressive team,” said UMBC senior guard and leading scorer Laura Castaldo, who was held to two points on Sunday, 10 below her average. “They’re very good all around.”

UMaine has moved into sole possession of second place in America East at 6-2. Six-time defending conference tournament champion Albany leads the league (8-1) including a 68-54 win over UMaine at Albany on Jan. 13.

UMaine has been a bit of a surprise at the halfway point of the league campaign because, despite reaching the America East championship game each of the last two seasons, the Black Bears were picked to finish sixth in the nine-team league in the preseason coaches poll.

The win streak has included impressive back-to-back road wins over Hartford and preseason favorite New Hampshire.

UMaine’s 56-46 win over UNH last Wednesday snapped UNH’s 10-game America East home winning streak dating back to a 63-59 loss to Vermont on Feb. 25, 2016.

UNH was 14-2 overall at Lundholm Gym last season with its only losses coming to nonconference opponents Yale and Harvard.

The Black Bears’ 59-44 victory over Hartford in its previous game, on Jan. 18, snapped Hartford’s five-game home winning streak.

UMaine limited Vermont, Hartford and UNH to 39.5-percent shooting, including 29.4 percent from the 3-point arc. UMBC shot only 29.5 percent from the floor.

The Black Bears are among the youngest teams in America East, starting three sophomores, a junior and a freshman.

UMaine has held its opponents to 60 points or less 13 times this season and is 12-1 those games.

Vachon said their grueling nonconference schedule, composed of several NCAA tournament teams including nationally ranked 2017 NCAA runner-up Mississippi State and Duke, has been beneficial.

“I’m really proud of our kids. They have grown a lot in a year and a half. They have played some outstanding teams and they’ve had to go through a lot of difficult things,” said Vachon.

She was referring to the loss of head coach Richard Barron, who remains on medical leave from coaching, along the graduation of three-time first-team All-AE guard Sigi Koizar and the departure of five players who transferred after last season, including four freshmen.

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