PHILADELPHIA — The men’s basketball team is now only one win away from making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 40 years.

In the first game of the Ivy League playoffs, Yale’s T.J. McHugh ’03 had a career-high 21 points to lead Yale (20-9, 11-3 Ivy) to a 76-60 win over Princeton (16-11, 11-3 Ivy) Thursday night at the Palestra in Philadelphia. With the win, Yale advances to play the University of Pennsylvania at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Lafayette’s Kirby Sports Center in Easton, Pa. The winner will receive the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“It’s amazing how it’s all coming together,” captain Ime Archibong ’03 said. “It is just a great feeling.”

The Bulldogs, who have notched Yale’s first 20-win season since the 1948-49 season, can punch their first ticket to the Big Dance since 1962 with a win against Penn. But in order to force that matchup, Yale needed to defeat a Princeton team that had dominated them only two weeks earlier in a 59-46 win in New Jersey.

This time around, the Bulldogs came out strong early and made it clear that they were the ones who would dominate.

“We got off to a good start. We made sure to get the ball inside to the big fella,” said Yale head coach James Jones, referring to McHugh. “And he made sure to take care of the opportunities he had.”

The 6-foot-8 McHugh scored 8 of Yale’s first 12 points, but thanks to some hot 3-point shooting, the Tigers held a 17-12 lead with nine minutes to go in the first half. That is when the Bulldogs took over, going on a 25-8 run to close out the half.

After a basket by Edwin Draughan ’05, who had 20 points on the evening, and a pair of free throws by McHugh, Paul Vitelli ’04 drained a 3-pointer to give Yale a 19-17 lead — a lead the Elis would never relinquish.

Aided by the unusual 4-point play by Vitelli — he drained a 3-pointer while being fouled — Yale took a 37-25 lead into halftime.

In the second half, the Bulldogs picked up where they left off. Seven quick points from Draughan, including a one-handed fast-break dunk and a 3-pointer in transition, gave Yale its biggest lead of the game, 48-30, four minutes into the second half.

But the Tigers would not go away. Princeton slowly chipped away at Yale’s lead and pulled within 9 points, 54-45, on a 3-pointer by Ahmed El-Nokali.

With the momentum in the balance, Archibong responded by driving to the hole for the bucket and the foul to prevent the tide from turning.

“We are not playing to try not to lose,” Archibong said he thought as he decided to drive to the basket. “We are playing to win.”

His 3-point play gave Yale a 57-45 lead with just over eight minutes to play. Princeton would not get within 10 points the rest of the way.

“That’s a very good team we played,” Princeton head coach John Thompson III said. “They came out and executed what they wanted to do.”

The game plan was to get the ball inside to McHugh, who scored in the paint for Yale’s first basket. The Elis repeatedly went inside to their center — who earned honorable mention All-Ivy honors this year — and he responded by making six of eight shots, nine of 13 free throws, and grabbing eight rebounds.

“The guards did a great job of penetrating and getting me the ball,” McHugh said. “I was shooting layups.”

On the strength of Yale’s inside game, the Elis took 12 fewer 3-point shots than their season average, making four of nine attempts beyond the arc.

On the game, the Elis shot 50 percent from the field and dominated Princeton on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 40-28. Defensively, Yale held the Tigers to only 34.5 percent shooting.

There were 2,108 people on hand at the game, including many Yale faithful who outnumbered the Princeton fans.

Also in the stands was the Penn basketball team, getting a chance to scout the Bulldogs for Saturday’s game.

Yale will need another strong all-around performance Saturday night in order to beat the talented Quakers. The two teams split their season series this year. Yale won 83-78 in New Haven but fell to the Quakers 72-63 in Philadelphia after leading for the first 37 minutes of the game.

The Quakers last played on Tuesday, beating Princeton 64-48 in the Palestra to force a three-way tie for the Ivy League championship and a two-game playoff to determine the recipient of the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.

Yale will play on only one day’s rest, but that does not worry Jones.

“Two teams want to go to the NCAA tournament,” Jones said. “I don’t think anything else matters.”

NOTES: Tickets for Saturday night’s game at Lafayette go on sale tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Yale ticket office in the Ray Tompkins House. Yale has been allotted 1,500 tickets, which will be $5 for students, $12 for adults. Saturday’s game will be played at a neutral site — Lafayette’s Kirby Sports Center in Easton, Pa. Tipoff is 7:30 p.m.

Yale point guard Alex Gamboa ’05 was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year and honorable mention All-Ivy. The freshman star averages 11.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game for the Bulldogs. Forward Paul Vitelli ’04 was tapped for second-team All-Ivy, while center T.J. McHugh ’03 joined Gamboa as an honorable mention.

Three Penn players were named first-team All-Ivy with junior forward Ugonna Onyekwe taking home Player of the Year honors.