They arrived from near and far, in distance and back in time, all these friends of Harry. If they could get there, they got there. Sunday afternoon, Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion. After 42 seasons in charge of this basketball program, here was Harry Perretta’s last regular-season home game.
“Had to be here,” said a man who had worked with Perretta 25 years ago, driving 10 hours.
Sunday afternoon turned out to be a quintessential Harry kind of day. It was pointed out pregame that it was too bad the Big East didn’t know Perretta was retiring when the schedule was drawn up, that anyone other than the current Big East power could have been brought in for the last one.
Unless that made it a better story.
Villanova grabbed an early lead and as the afternoon progressed, you wondered how long they could hold it. DePaul came in 15-1 in the Big East, 25-3 overall, ranked 12th nationally. Halftime came and Villanova still clung to the lead.
The third quarter ended and Villanova had widened its lead. When DePaul closed the gap, Villanova widened it with a three-pointer or a press-breaking home run pass. Final score: Villanova 76, DePaul 58. A Cinderella smashing. Perretta’s star freshman Madison Siegrist scored 29 and set a single-season school scoring record that had stood for 36 years.
Senior Mary Gedaka did her thing for 17 points, getting buckets and guarding the opposite rim. Raven James hit some crucial threes when DePaul probably still thought it could win. And Cameron Onken topped them all, with only the second triple-double in program history, 12 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists. Onken is listed as a junior but she came out with her parents for Senior Day because she had been accepted for dental school and thought she could defer for a year but found out this week she couldn’t defer, she explained, so she had made the decision to move on. As an emotional day as you could get.
Villanova is about the last team you want to play from behind — especially on an off-shooting day like DePaul was having — since you might run your offense for six seconds, then have to play defense for closer to 30.
“It was a great day, a great game," Perretta said. “The kids played unbelievable. I just tried to stay out of it as much as I could.”
In fact, every possession, he was moving players around and yelling things like, “Hold up, just hold up.”
“He never stays out of it," Onken said.
When Perretta was hired, the NCAA didn’t include women hoops. His team wasn’t in a league. He couldn’t help but tell the story of meeting these men forming this new outfit called the Big East. Dave Gavitt and Mike Tranghese showed up on campus.
“I had my work boots on because I was laying cement," Perretta said, retelling the story after the game. "That’s what I did. I was part-time here. I would lay cement, come to practice. … It’s been a long time since that day.”
A rare bird in so many ways. A rival of both Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt, while a close, close friend of both. Imagine they gave this 22-year-old the job right out of Lycoming College. The son of a heavy equipment operator who worked for the city, from West Philly originally. He had thought this might be a good job to eventually parlay into his dream job, coaching the boys at his alma mater, Monsignor Bonner High.
He put in a motion offense he had picked up as a teenager from Temple men’s coach Harry Litwack at a camp in the Poconos. He kept tweaking it, and stayed around despite offers that paid more than Villanova (or Bonner.) He has won 781 times, with 11 NCAA tournament appearances, a 1982 AIAW Final Four appearance, 18 Big 5 titles.
Since Perretta’s retirement was announced before the season, there was kind of a farewell tour. Penn coach Mike McLaughlin presented him with maybe his favorite gift, a piece of the original Palestra floor. “I went over to different people’s houses that night to knock on their door to show it,” Perretta said.
The only admitted horse racing and All My Children aficionado, Perretta got bobbleheads of jockeys at American University. His own school gave him four tickets to the Kentucky Derby, which he’s excited about since he’s never been.
Playing Drexel, his former assistant Denise Dillon "went down to the train station and got me chicken wings. I love the chicken wings at the train station. I heated them up that night. … She gave Helen [Perretta’s wife] a spa treatment.”
This season had started with three straight losses. Nobody had Villanova doing much of anything in the Big East. Perretta had said he was glad he was coaching this one, since it would have been so frustrating for his successor. Instead, this turned out to be a Perretta team in every way, now 10-6 in the league, 17-10 overall. Far from perfect Sunday, with 20 turnovers. But they got the shots they wanted and defended all over the court. They somehow looked like the better team out there, as DePaul dropped to 25-4 overall.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I thought we could hang with them,” Perretta said.
“He didn’t think that,” Onken said, taking the role of truth-teller in the postgame media conference.
“I didn’t call it,” Perretta admitted.
The whole thing, he said, turned out pretty cool.
“It’s funny, this morning, I didn’t feel real good,” Perretta said later. "I was tired, nervous about all this. I just went for a walk. One of my friends in the neighborhood walked with me. We just talked about what was going to happen. Father Rob [Hagan] called me, was just telling me to take it easy, take deep breaths. Everybody was coaching me, which was good.”
When it was over, there was a video tribute and a group photo of all the Perretta players from all the years, dozens back for this one. A receiving line of sorts started with all the folks hugging Harry. He looked — for lack of a better word — happy. A dance party broke out on the court. There are still some more games ahead, but this one goes down as historically special, 42 years worth of good karma paying its respects to this man.