The first-half hole St. Joseph's dug for itself was so deep, the climb back was of mountainous proportions.

And although the Hawks nearly scaled the peak after the break, it proved to be exhaustive as efficient Holy Cross beat St. Joe's, 71-66, tonight at Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse.

The Hawks' first half was so awful that they didn't score their first two-point field goal until almost two minutes into the second half. Even more damaging was the near-absence of center Ahmad Nivins: The 6-foot-9 junior attempted only one field goal in the first half and three in the game.

"That clearly falls on my shoulders," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "When our best player is getting three shots . . . then I have not taught very well in terms of positioning or offensive looks."

The Crusaders' 2-3 matchup zone not only gave Nivins headaches but also disrupted the Hawks' perimeter game before the break. Forced to play a half-court game, St. Joseph's only true option on offense was the penetrating Tasheed Carr.

"We just came out and played like a bunch of girls," forward Pat Calathes said. "We came out and we got muscled and we got bullied by a bunch of guys . . . we should have pounded into the ground."

Holy Cross (7-1) put on a passing clinic. If a shot wasn't there, the Crusaders simply moved the basketball on to the next option - usually an open man by way of a screen. They tallied 22 assists to St. Joe's 12.

But mostly the Crusaders made their shots. They shot 50 percent from the field (25 of 50), 57.1 percent from beyond the arc (8 of 14), and 76.5 percent from the line (13 of 17). Tim Clifford and Alex Vander Baan scored 16 points each to lead Holy Cross.

"I thought that because of the system Holy Cross would play . . . we would be challenged defensively," Martelli said. "I did not deliver that message clear enough."

And still, St. Joe's (4-3) had opportunities. Thanks to the defensive spark provided by Garrett Williamson off the bench and the awakening of Calathes, the Hawks pulled to within five with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left.

Calathes scored all of his game-high 19 points in a span of 9 minutes, 37 seconds, with his last deuce narrowing the margin to 66-61. But he missed the front end of a one-and-one, and the Hawks failed on five straight shots to cut into the lead.

Guard Darrin Govens missed a rushed jumper at 1:39. Carr clanked a three-pointer at :56. Calathes missed the follow and a tip. And Govens, after the long rebound, was off on a long trey at 46 seconds.

"You climb the hill and you climb the hill," Martelli said. "And it's one of those situations if you make one of those, maybe you go over the top of that hill and start rolling back down."

Of course, the hill wouldn't have been as steep if it weren't for a woeful first 20 minutes, after which St. Joes found itself trailing, 34-21.

"That was an unusual first half," Martelli said.

How unusual (or bad) was it?

The Hawks had six turnovers in their first eight possessions.

They didn't convert their first field goal attempt until there was 5:01 left.

They were 0 for 8 on two-point attempts.

They were outrebounded, 19-10.

The Hawk mascot's incessant flapping would have provided better defense.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.