DAYTON, Ohio — Dean Lockwood didn’t have to wonder about Tennessee’s readiness on Sunday.
Tennessee’s assistant coach could concentrate on watching game video in the locker room while the Lady Vols occupied themselves with a rousing game of “Pictionary.”
A different scene will unfold in the same locker room at University of Dayton Arena as top-seed Tennessee (34-2) will gather for its instructions before a Dayton Regional final against No. 2 seed Notre Dame tonight (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.). The winner advances to the Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
That’s when Lockwood and his colleagues are apt to look around and ask themselves: Are they ready?
Lockwood already was anticipating a familiar reply: “You tell me. I don’t know.”
The Lady Vols’ 25-game winning streak suggests consistency. But they’ve been shaky enough in NCAA women’s basketball tournament victories over Marquette and Ohio State to create an undercurrent of uncertainty.
After meeting with her assistants Sunday morning, UT coach Pat Summitt added a little upheaval by rearranging the starting lineup against the Fighting Irish (29-7). Alyssia Brewer and Taber Spani will start against the Fighting Irish in place of Kelley Cain and Angie Bjorklund, respectively, as the Lady Vols revert to the starters they utilized at the SEC tournament.
“They have matured; it’s clear that they’ve matured,’’ Lockwood said of the players. “And it’s clear they recognize more what is needed, what type of effort. But now the key is can they go to that right away as opposed to needing a half or waiting the first 10 minutes even.”
The lineup changes reflect one of UT’s strengths, namely its depth. Brewer is more mobile than Cain, who has been bothered by a sore right hip.
“I know they’re going to face up at the high post,” said Summitt, speaking of Notre Dame. “That’s not Kelley’s strength. Lyssi is a lot more mobile.
“We’re trying to go more mobile against them. I think our mobile players will be our most effective players.”
Bringing Bjorklund off the bench, though, is a concession to her 2 for 13 shooting in the past two games. The Lady Vols hope the senior guard reprises the productive role she played as a reserve during the SEC tournament, when she averaged 14 points per game and shot 62.5 percent from the floor.
“That’s how we started in the SECs and we played great in that tournament,’’ Bjorklund said. “Whatever it takes, I trust the coach’s decision. I think anyone can start on this team. We’re so deep.”
Since Notre Dame averages 77.5 points per game and can match UT’s firepower, Tennessee will need a better start on defense than Saturday against Ohio State. The Buckeyes scored 42 first-half points and shot 66.7 percent from the floor before the Lady Vols found some traction in the second half.
The Fighting Irish were feeling good about their defense after holding Oklahoma to 53 points and gathering 14 steals.
“It’s good to be at this point of the tournament knowing that we’re coming together defensively,’’ Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Said Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale: “I think they don’t get enough credit for their defense because their offense is so salty. But defensively they’re very good.”
The other prominent battle line will be drawn over rebounding. Both teams talked about boxing out on Sunday as if they were previewing a demolition derby under the basket. Notre Dame’s Becca Bruszewski, the team’s third-leading rebounder, is questionable after suffering a knee injury against Oklahoma.
“Everyone has to crash the boards,’’ UT forward Glory Johnson said. “If not, they have to make sure their man is not getting the rebound.
“It’s got to happen. It has to happen for us to be successful. And I think it can happen.”
From her perspective, Johnson indicated that the team emerging from Tennessee’s locker room tonight will know what’s at stake and better realize how little margin for error it has.
“We won’t have the time and the opportunity,’’ she said, “to mess up as much in this game.”
Dan Fleser covers Lady Vols basketball. He may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/fleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser/