By JONAH BRONSTEIN
— The Cardiac Kids of the Cataract City pulled out another improbable win and are now pulling away in the conference title race.
Juan'ya Green hit the tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation and the winning one at the end of overtime to lift Niagara to a 93-90 come-from-behind victory over Iona in Thursday's battle for first-place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Coming off an exhilarating last-second win over rival Canisius on Sunday, the Purple Eagles somehow found a way to top that effort in front of a white-hot crowd of 1,856 at the Gallagher Center.
Niagara (14-8, 10-1) is now off to its best MAAC start in history and holds a two-game lead over Iona (14-8, 8-3), the lone team it has lost to. On Saturday, Niagara hosts third-place Loyola, the defending champions coming off losses to Iona and Canisius.
For most of the second half Thursday, it looked as if the Gaels were going to reclaim their status as the team to beat in the MAAC. They led by as many as 15 at one point and held a 12-point advantage inside of six minutes.
"Everybody's head was down," Green said.
That's when Green and Antoine Mason picked the Purple Eagles up by their bootstraps, turning up the volume in team huddles and taking the big shots down the stretch.
"I don't know how many teams in the league have an answer for those two players," Iona coach Tim Cluess said.
The Gaels certainly didn't. Green, who finished with 26 points, eight assists, five rebounds and three steals, netted eight of Niagara's next 12 points and Mason scored inside to make it 81-76 with 43 seconds remaining.
The Purple Eagles then fouled Sean Armand, a 76 percent free throw shooter, who proceeded to miss both foul shots.
Green was fouled while falling down with 23 seconds left and he hit both of his free throws to make it a three-point game.
Armand then threw the inbounds pass right into the outstretched arm of Green, who bounced back behind the 3-point line and lauched a shot to tie.
The ball bricked hard off the back rim, but Mason was able to pull down the long rebound. He tried again from 3-point range and missed. This time, Marvin Jordan came up with the carom, and set up Mason for another chance to tie. Antother miss, another long rebound, now in the hands of Green, who went behind the back and rose up for a fourth 3-point attempt.
Green admitted afterward that he was surprised to get another chance after missing the first 3.
"They went after the ball like it was the last rebound that was every going to happen," coach Joe Mihalich said.
"It's almost like the gods were tipping it out to give them another chance," Cluess said.
Invigorated in overtime, Mason, who led Niagara with a career-high 30 points, drove in for a two-handed slam off the opening tip then banked in a short floater to put Niagara up 85-81.
But a Mason turnover, blocking fouls by Ameen Tanksley (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Marvin Jordan (nine points) and five quick points from Armand put Iona back in front.
Mason responded with a baseline drive that produced a 3-point play and gave Niagara an 88-86 lead. David Laury, the 6-foot-8 junior college transfer who led Iona with 24 points and 16 rebounds, made two free throws after rebounding a missed 3-pointer by Momo Jones (23 points). Mason came back with another inside bucket to put Niagara in front, but Laury made another pair of foul shots to tie the game at 90 with 21 seconds left.
Green deliberately brought the ball up the floor, sized up his defender, the 5-9 Tavon Sledge, and rose up for a straightaway 3 that hit nothing but net.
Devon White, who had nine of his 10 rebounds in the second half, stole the inbounds pass and secured the win.
"We lost our fight for a little stretch there," Mihalich said. "So to get it back is what makes me as proud as almost anything that happened tonight. We could've died. We could've said we had a good run and these guys are pretty good, you know, but these guys just wouldn't give in."
"The will to win," Mason chimed in.
"That's right, Mase," said Mihalich. "That's what we've got."