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Rubel Duo dancing to NCAA Tournament with UT Martin

The UT Martin women's basketball team poses after becoming an automatic qualifier for the upcoming NCAA Tournament last week. Photo courtesy of UT Martin Athletics

Some things truly never change.

Sisters Lexi Rubel and Tori Rubel, who helped make Notre Dame basketball a powerhouse once again in Southeast Missouri, continue to shine in the playoffs.

On Friday in Evansville, Indiana, the two current UT Martin Skyhawks (16-15, 11-7 OVC) helped their team defeat Arkansas Little Rock (12-18, 11-7) 54-48 in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinals.

The victory not only punched the Skyhawks their ticket to Saturday’s OVC championship game, but it gave them the very first automatic-qualifying bid for the NCAA Tournament out of every team in the nation.

This was due UT Martin’s opponent in the title game Southern Indiana (23-6, 14-2) being ineligible for the tournament since it is still in year two of a four-year transition into Division-I from D-II.

The Skyhawks ended up resting four of their five starters in the OVC title game, though, for the Eagles to win big 81-53. UT Martin went this route so that its key players could be injury-free and well rested for what’s to come.

Nonetheless, The Rubel Duo will be making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament next week, which is set to tipoff on March 20. It will also be UT Martin’s first time being in the tournament in a decade after advancing in 2013-14, falling to North Carolina 60- 58 in the first round.

“It feels great, kind of like old times winning high school district tournaments,” Lexi said. “It’s so special. I haven’t really processed it yet.”

Tori added, “It’s even better to have this experience with not only Lexi but all the girls on the team. Everyone on this team has made my freshman year an even better experience than I ever could have imagined.”

In order for the Skyhawks to finally punch their ticket once again, sophomore forward Lexi Rubel was nothing short of crucial in the historic win over the Trojans. Trailing by one with one minute, 35 seconds left in the game, Lexi buried a 3-pointer to give the Skyhawks a 48-46 lead over Little Rock.

Later when UT Martin was up 52-48 with 16 seconds remaining, Rubel hauled in a defensive rebound after a missed attempt from beyond the arc by the Trojans. Having gone to the ground with the board, Lexi then passed the ball off to redshirt freshman Kenley McCarn, who proceeded to make both of her free-throw attempts after being instantly fouled when receiving the ball.

“On my 3-pointer, I knew as soon as I let it go it was going in,” Lexi recalled. “I told myself I had to make it, and I did. For the rebound, our coach kept telling us, ‘Two more stops,’ and I knew if I got that rebound we’d win.”

The Skyhawks finished 90% from the charity stripe as Lexi Rubel made both of her lone free-throw attempts, finishing with the third-most points for UT Martin at 11. On top of that, she registered a team-high eight rebounds and had one steal and one assist.

As for her younger sister freshman forward Tori Rubel, she was the only player to come off the Skyhawks bench and play more than a few seconds with four minutes. However, versus Southern Indiana when UT Martin rested its usual starters, Rubel notched 36 minutes and recorded a team-high eight rebounds and hit one 3-pointer with two steals (tied for the team high) and one assist.

“I’ve always given 100% in whatever position I’ve been asked to play in,” Tori noted. “This is the role the coaches asked me to play this year, and I want to do what’s best for the team, so I’ve embraced it. I’ve learned a lot playing in this new position.”

Lexi, who is averaging the second-most minutes in the OVC, was among the starters that sat out versus the
Eagles. She played all 40 minutes versus Little Rock, as did three other Skyhawks. McCarn also played every minute and posted 12 points (5-for-6 free throws) with six rebounds, while sophomore forward Anaya Brown produced a team-high 15 points (7-for-8) and also had five boards and two steals.

Both of these UT Martin starters, along with Lexi Rubel and sophomore guard Josey Storey, didn’t play against Southern Indiana for the OVC Championship. During the regular season, though, the Skyhawks fell to the Eagles by only six points, 73-67, at home.

Unsurprisingly, Lexi Rubel was also key in UT Martin’s 79-71 win over the 2023 OVC Champions Tennessee Tech in the conference tournament quarterfinals on Thursday. She knocked down not one, not two, but all three of her 3-point attempts for another 11-point outing with five rebounds, five assists and one steal.

Along with being in the top-two of minutes played in all of the OVC, Rubel also ranks No. 4 in assists (3.7 per game), No. 6 in rebounds (7.2) and steals (1.7) for the conference. Lexi is also shooting nearly 80% at the free-throw line and is .483 from the field with an average of 8.9 points per game.

This winter is Rubel’s second-straight season in UT Martin’s starting five. During the broadcast of the OVC semifinal, the color commentator called Lexi “the glue” of this Skyhawks women’s basketball team.

“I just do whatever I need to to help us win,” she said. “Sometimes that means being the leading scorer. Sometimes that means getting five or six assists, and sometimes that means getting 10 to 15 rebounds.
I just want to win, and I’m willing to do whatever needs to be done that game.”

The women’s bracket will officially be revealed on Sunday, March 17, as each game will be broadcasted on ESPN networks. The first and second-round matchups, as well as the First Four, will be hosted by the top 16 seeds.

Playing on one of the biggest stages women’s basketball has to offer will be an everlasting memory for both sisters. Lexi and Tori first started playing organized ball together as members of Semo Sizzle back in 2012.

“If you would’ve asked me when I was a little girl if I would get a chance to be in this position, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Tori said. “It’s going to be such a great experience, and I’m so lucky to get to experience it, especially as a freshman.”

Lexi added, “I came to UT Martin because I wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament, so it’s exciting to get to do that as only a sophomore.”

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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