Ubiquitous Harry Perretta readies Villanova women for NCAAs

Villanova coach Harry Perretta reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in Hartford, Conn., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Connecticut won 76-43. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
Villanova coach Harry Perretta reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in Hartford, Conn., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Connecticut won 76-43. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham) (AP)
Posted: March 24, 2013

Villanova women's coach Harry Perretta, being Harry Perretta, could pop up anywhere basketball-related.

There he was in Brooklyn one afternoon with his sons, checking out La Salle's quarterfinal Atlantic Ten 10 men's tournament game.

Saw him last Monday at the Philadelphia Small College Coaches' Association banquet.

Didn't matter that it was the same time as the selection show for the NCAA women's tournament, of which Perretta would be a participant. His friend of "30-some years" Bob Heller, sports information director at the University of the Sciences, got inducted that night into the organization's Hall of Fame. Perretta sat at Heller's table.

"He was my first manager," Perretta said. "We got a masters' degree together."

That meant Perretta heard Villanova's name called out for the NCAAs for the first time since 2009 as Perretta stood in the weight room next to the gym at the University of the Sciences, watching ESPN.

"A kid in the weight room, he's standing right next to me, I said, 'Oh man, I've got to go to Stanford,' " Perretta said. "He's looking at me, like, "What?' "

Perretta told him, "We've got to play Michigan. I'm the [Villanova] women's coach. I hate to fly."

The guy probably thought Perretta was delusional. Here's the thing: It is kind of symbolic of what kind of team Villanova had this season. Perretta himself believes it is one of the most unselfish groups he's been around.

Some statistics as Villanova, 21-10 and a No. 9 seed this season, prepares to face No. 8 Michigan Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif.: The Wildcats had assists on 72.8 percent of their baskets, impressive stuff even for the kind of motion offense Perretta runs. (For comparison, 'Nova opponents had assists on 51.4 percent of their baskets). Seven Wildcats players had at least 50 assists.

It went beyond that, Perretta said. Unselfishness was the overall mind-set. This team had a strong senior group. Laura Sweeney was the leading scorer and rebounder, and really gave 'Nova an inside presence. Rachel Roberts was the top shooter. According to the coach, a freshman coming off the bench, Caroline Coyer, was the missing ingredient.

"We did not have a guard who could break you down off the dribble," Perretta said. As part of that, he said, the seniors allowed Coyer to go play her game, and had the savvy to play off it.

"A lot of senior-laden teams would not have allowed a freshmen to excel," Perretta said. "They just wouldn't have allowed it. They would have wanted the spotlight to themselves."

When Coyer broke a bone in her hand late in the season, Villanova looked like it was in trouble, that the injury might cost the Wildcats an NCAA bid. Here, Perretta cites another act of selflessness, on the part of Coyer's twin sister, Katherine.

The freshman was redshirting at the time - Villanova already had a full guard rotation. But Perretta talked to Katherine Coyer about coming out of the redshirt, even with fewer than a dozen games left in the regular season. He wasn't asking Katherine to replace her sister and break down defenses. He wanted her to come in, give 15 minutes a game, play her own solid overall game and keep Villanova's rotation the same, so the other guards didn't wear down. So Devon Kane could keep harassing opposing guards with the same effectiveness, for instance.

"I told her, if you play, I think we have a 30 to 50 percent chance, if you play, to win five more games and make the NCAA tournament," Perretta said. "I said if you don't play, I think that percentage goes down to 20 to 30."

She played, telling her coach that if she hadn't, and Villanova hadn't gotten in, "I'll feel like I hurt the team."

It turned out, Villanova won six more games, and her twin sister made it back for the Big East tournament. (They have good genes, too. Their brother is Temple's quarterback).

At that tournament, Perretta got the place going with a Perretta-type move. The Wildcats were playing almost a perfect game against Georgetown, eventually winning 89-58. However, 'Nova couldn't stop Hoyas star Sugar Rodgers, who came out with under a minute left, after 40 points. Villanova sports information director Dean Kenefick told Perretta that Rodgers was one point short of tying the Big East tournament scoring record.

So Perretta yelled to Georgetown's coach, finally got his attention, and Rodgers was put back in. Perretta told one of his players to play Rodgers aggressively. She got the idea. Rodgers went to the foul line.

"I yelled out to Sugar, you get one chance at it, that's it," Perretta said.

She made the most of it, hitting two free throws. He felt like she'd earned it, since they couldn't stop her. (Shades of Nykesha Sales, for women's hoops fans with memories).

Perretta has the ability to compete fiercely, then forget the rivalries and see competitors as partners in a common endeavor. As Notre Dame won a tight one at Villanova this season, it was obvious Irish star Skylar Diggins played frustrated, mostly because of Kane's first-rate defensive work.

Right afterward, Perretta told Diggins she was too good a player to get frustrated. He didn't know how she'd react.

"She came up after in the back to thank me," Perretta said. "I thought that was really nice. Your job is to help all the kids."

In his 35th season, Perretta is kind of a cult figure in his sport. He's not a household name, even in Philadelphia - but he does have a bobblehead.

"You want one?" Perretta said, opening a closet door behind his desk, showing several boxes of them.

With him, there's usually a story behind the story. Some years back, the school ordered the bobbleheads, 5,000 of them. Or that's what they thought. Someone hit the wrong button on an order form and 25,000 showed up.

He hadn't counted on this act of unselfishness.

"I've been giving them away for years," Perretta said.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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