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Ticket Punched: Iona wins the Metro Atlantic after some rough patches

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(AP)

Iona won't have sweat through another Selection Sunday this year.

The Gaels put an ugly final month of the regular season behind them and won the Metro Atlantic Conference tournament Monday night to secure a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament after earning an at-large bid last season.

They overcame a small second-half deficit in the championship game to beat crosstown rival Manhattan 60-57, but coach Tim Cluess' program overcame much more to get back to the Big Dance.

When last season ended, Cluess was forced to confront the reality of needing to replace his team's leading scorer and the national leader in assists. He did it by adding a handful of transfers to his program and hoping they would gel together.

There were times where it didn't appear to be going well and the Gaels endured more than their share of tough losses, including four in the final seconds of games. One of those losses came against Manhattan just a few weeks ago in double-overtime. It was the fourth consecutive time Manhattan had beaten Iona, a streak that ended Monday night when the Gaels refused to allow a late come back.

Guard Momo Jones, who transferred to Iona two years ago after helping lead Arizona to the Elite Eight in 2010-11, has been a team captain and a force for the Gaels for most of the season. In his last 10 games he has scored at least 26 points six times. His teammates didn't need that kind of production from him in the title game. He finished with 14 points but still earned the tournament's Most Valuable Player award and he cried afterward in a long embrace on the court with Cluess.

Iona could be a dangerous opponent for higher seeds in the tournament, especially if the Gaels have finally figured out how finish games. Safe to say, no one will be happy to be paired with them in the bracket.

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