Iona guard A.J. English (5) embraces Monmouth guard Justin Robinson (12) after Iona's 79-76 win in an NCAA men's college basketball game in the championship of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament on Monday, March 7, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP
Mike Groll
March 07, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) Long after he had helped cut down the nets at Times Union Center, Iona's Isaiah Williams was still awestruck. After three years of trying, the senior forward and the Gaels are headed back to the NCAA Tournament.

A.J. English hit a fadeway jumper with 1:39 left to break a tie and Deyshonee Much followed with a driving layup that he converted into a three-point play, and second-seeded Iona edged top-seeded Monmouth 79-76 on Monday night to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament title and snare a berth in the big tournament.

''I just can't believe it,'' said Williams, who had watched those postseason dreams disappear in consecutive losses to Manhattan in the MAAC final. ''We've talked about it for the past three years, but we finally got it. I'm still in shock.''

The Hawks (27-7), who joined the MAAC in 2013, were seeking their first tournament appearance since 2006 when they were members of the Northeast Conference. They entered the title game on a five-game winning streak and had won 13 of 14 in a storybook season, the lone loss coming at Iona (22-10).

As the league regular-season champion, Monmouth is at least assured of playing in the NIT. Coach King Rice figures his team merits more, and with a solid resume, the Hawks are in the running for an at-large bid.

''I've believed that all along. I think our kids have earned the right (to play in the NCAA Tournament), but I don't get a vote,'' Rice said. ''Those kids made the plays down the stretch. My kids gave it everything they possibly could. They came up short. Now, we're just gonna be ready to play if we get called.''

The MAAC has twice had multiple bids (1995, 2012), and Iona coach Tim Cluess figures the Hawks will get the third.

''I definitely think they deserve it,'' Cluess said. ''With the year they had, I expect them to get in.''

The game came down to the final moments. A 3 from the right corner by Much gave Iona a 66-65 lead with 4:44 left before Josh James tied it at 67 with a pretty spin move through the lane. But he was called for a technical after gesturing and yelling at the Gaels and English sank both free throws.

A tip-in by Jordan Washington gave Iona a 71-67 lead before a pair of free throws by Micah Seaborn narrowed the gap to 71-69 at 3:24. Two more free throws by Justin Robinson tied it at 71-all before English hit his tough shot.

Monmouth made a gallant try in the final minute, forcing a turnover when Much was called for a foul while the Hawks were pressing. Deon Jones sank both free throws to make it a one-point game, but Aaron Rountree calmly made two for the Gaels with 17.3 seconds left and the Hawks couldn't get a shot off in the final seconds.

Before Monday, Monmouth was 21-0 when leading at the break.

''What a game. They played their hearts out,'' Cluess said. ''They've worked as hard as any team I've ever coached for the past two months. I love it when hard work pays off for them. They just came together as a unit. It's hard to explain. We were struggling earlier in the year.''

English, named tournament MVP, led Iona with 19 points, Williams had 17, and Washington and Much each had 15.

Je'lon Hornbeak paced Monmouth with 20 points, Robinson had 12 and Seaborn 10.

The Monmouth bench mob has made a name for itself this year as the bench players have come up with one-of-a-kind celebrations during games. They celebrated a lot again on Monday, until the end.

The teams split in the regular season, each winning at home. In the first meeting, Monmouth managed a 110-102 victory. The Hawks overcame 45 points from English, who repeatedly taunted the opposing bench. Words were exchanged at some point during the postgame handshake line and Iona's Washington slapped the face of Monmouth big man Chris Brady.

TIP-INS:

Iona: Gaels have a league-record nine titles and were the second seed for the sixth time. They had won two of their previous MAAC titles as the second seed and were 1-0 against Monmouth in the MAAC tournament. ... Coach Tim Cluess moved into second place all-time with 140 wins, one more than Jeff Ruland. Jim McDermott won 319 from 1948-73. ... Entering the game, English was 43 points shy of becoming the third player in school history to score 2,000.

Monmouth: The Hawks were one of the surprise teams nationally during the regular season. In nonconference play they defeated UCLA, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Georgetown and Rutgers. ... Robinson entered the game with 650 points and needed 13 to match Alex Blackwell's school record set in 1990-91. ... Fifth-year coach King Rice won MAAC coach of the year.

DEJA VU: It was a deja vu moment for English. A year ago, he hit 13 of 20 from beyond the arc in Iona's first two games of the 2015 MAAC tournament, including 7 for 10 against the Hawks in the semis. He was a non-factor in the second half of the championship game loss to Manhattan, though, failing to score and attempting only three shots in scoring just 10 points in the game. After going 10 for 20 from long range in the first two games of this year's tournament, English missed his first four shots on Monday night.

UP NEXT:

Iona: NCAA Tournament.

Monmouth: Await an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament

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