University of Maine's Blanca Millan (right) defends against University of Massachusetts Lowell's Markayla Sherman during their basketball game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in 2017. Credit: Micky Bedell

ORONO, Maine — Parise Rossignol smiles when asked about the defense she played for Van Buren High School.

“I don’t think anyone will argue that I wasn’t known for my defense. I played at the bottom of the 2-3 zone and it wasn’t a very active 2-3 zone. I chilled on defense,” Rossignol said with a smile.

But that changed when she arrived at the University of Maine.

The high-scoring junior guard had to learn how to play defense and she has become a reliable defender on a team that takes tremendous pride in its ability to shut down its opponents.

Going into Friday’s 4 p.m. America East championship game against Hartford at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, the Black Bears lead America East and are tied for 16th in the country in scoring defense, allowing only 55.5 points per game.

“It’s different at the college level,” said Rossignol, who scored over 2,000 points in high school. “You have to be more intense on defense than on offense.”

Rossignol last week was named the America East Sixth Player of the Year, in part because of her defensive efforts.

“It was difficult going against a totally different caliber of player,” Rossignol said. “A lot of it has to do with playing smart and knowing where to be at the right time. It took some adjusting.”

“She has accepted her role and has been really committed, whether it be on offense or defense,” UMaine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon said. “She isn’t the quickest kid on the floor but she’s smart and she’s strong and she’s able to use her strength (to defend).”

Rossignol and her teammates watch a lot of video to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and devise a game plan.

And she enjoys playing defense.

“A big part of it is scouting the other team … knowing what they do well and trying your best to take that away from them. For me, that’s really fun,” Rossignol said.

She helped spark the Black Bears’ second-half rally in their 74-69 overtime win over Albany on Feb. 25 by taking turns with sophomore guard Blanca Millan guarding Great Danes star Jessica Fequiere. They limited her to 10 second-half points after she scored 15 in the first half.

“Defense is our best weapon,” freshman guard Dor Saar said. “We put a lot of emphasis on defense.”

“We try to get up on them [opponents] and we’re aggressive,” junior guard Tanesha Sutton said. “We try to take them off their game and dictate what we want them to do.”

Sophomore forward Fanny Wadling said UMaine devotes half of its practice time to defense “and even when we do offensive stuff, defense is important.”

UMaine has held opponents to 51 points or fewer 17 times in 31 games. The 22-9 Black Bears are 16-1 in those games with 16 consecutive wins after a season-opening 42-34 loss to Tulane University.

They are coming off two of those victories, a 65-43 triumph over the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the America East quarterfinals and a 64-48 victory over New Hampshire in the semifinals last weekend in Portland.

UMaine is holding opponents to 38.3 percent shooting from the floor, second best in the conference, and 28.7 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point arc, which ranks third.

Millan is the team’s secretary of defense.

She leads the conference in steals (95) and steals per game (3.1), and she is 12th and 15th in the country, respectively, in those categories.

Millan said UMaine’s defense fuels its offense and the fast break.

“If we play great defense, we can run and we can get easy layups and shots. That’s really helpful. That’s where we can find our energy,” Millan said.

“You can almost get more energy from getting a stop and a big rebound than you can from scoring points,” said Wadling, who added that communication is vital to effective defending.

Millan credited her teammates for playing an important role in her steals.

“Everybody puts a lot of pressure on the ball and that makes it easier for me to see where the ball is going so I can run through the pass (and intercept it),” said Millan.

Vachon said one important piece in the defensive success is the fact that “our two best players (Millan and Sutton) are our two best defensive players.

“That definitely sets the tone,” said Vachon, who added that her players’ determination and work ethic are other keys.

“When we put a game plan in place, they are really determined to stick with it and not get beat by the person they’re guarding,” Vachon said.

“We have been super committed to it from day one,” Rossignol said. “When our defense is good, it leads to energy on offense.”

Rossignol’s offense has come around of late as she scored 28 points combined in the quarterfinal and semifinal victories. She shot 10-for-15 from the floor, including 3-for-6 from the 3-point arc.

“My teammates and the coaches deserve credit,” Rossignol said. “As the year progressed, they kept telling me to shoot the ball. They told me I was a good shooter and the ball was going to go in.

“Thankfully, it did last weekend,” added Rossignol.

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